Sunday, May 27, 2007

Rainbow-Striped Milestone

New York's last remaining brown-roof, rainbow-striped Toys "R" Us store is about to turn 20 years old. Having little to no significant renovations since its opening in 1988, the lone Clay store is also the only store left in the Syracuse region within the fallout of a closed location in nearby suburb, DeWitt last year and 57 miles apart its other active New Hartford store.

Upon the various delays of my yearning to come back to Clay, I've searched for Toys "R" Us on Flickr ever since hoping to find some intriguing photos of Clay. What really comes up (in droves)? A whole pack upon thousands of shots relating to a neon-wild ferris wheel with the huge backwards "R" plastered in the middle. Its from the Times Square location, which is one of the many mesmerizing attractions apart of the company's established "flagship" store in the heart of New York City. Yeah I saw it. It's a nice attraction, sure and is ever crowded as the City itself usually is. So crowded, in fact, that I decided to skip it upon my December visit because of the outrageous mob just waiting to get inside the store.

What better way to show the exuberance of your store; a company image all in one than the one in Times Square? I don't know, it really doesn't seem to be a big deal. I mean, this really didn't encompass the Toys "R" Us I experienced on Saturday afternoons in my homely suburb when I was a kid.


The real attraction, all the while, is one not too many really know about, far up in the Northern nosebleed of the (up)state, in a whoknowswhat town of Clay, a quiet suburb which houses an ever growing strip of big box retail beyond the region's Great Northern Mall, just north of Syracuse and south of another town you've never heard of where people do live called Oswego.

Recently, I made another excursion up that way, like one last Summer which ended early when I dropped my late Sony subcompact cutting what amounted to a roughly four-and-half hour-trip from Farmington to Clay short. Unfinished business had me wait almost a year later to return and fully capture the essence of a genuine Toys "R" Us store, unlike all remaining ones surrounding it, succumb to hideous or uninspired embodiments of bland corporate imagery all around it.


Earlier this year, The Caldor Rainbow did a report on these original stores existing today, left in various forms (mostly repaint jobs) across New York and one in Woburn, Massachusetts. However, the Clay store is the most special of them all. It has (almost) of it all. The faux-shingled brown roof, rainbow-striped wood planks along the front in their original colors, wickedly vintage plexiglas Geoffrey, and the orange-black portrait "Entrance" signage above the rickety, aging doors. The inside, still draped in yellow and blue stripes never saw the doctrinaire "impossible mission" layout (which is much phasing in favor of simple, traditional aisles) and still contain glass-casing and pull-ticket equipped aisles for video games, consoles and other high-priced merchandise just like the glory days of the 80's and 90's.


Age has treated the Clay store rather well but not without some diminishing factors. A peeling roof revealing some stuffing and no shortage of stale beehives and birdlife harvest under and within the somewhat deteriorating roofing with shoddy scaffold lighting barely working. There was also, like noted last time around, an absence of one of the "Exit Only" plate above the side exit and some older decals and 90's-era blue-clad aisle signs from 2006 have largely been replaced for flimsy homogeneous signs seen at up-to-date stores of today.


Upon my last group of shots taken at the fascinating Clay location, shortly before closing, a red-shirted manager wearing some headset who first appeared to be collecting stray shopping carts scattered about the parking lot upon a dusk, chilly evening saw my person, then soon makes way over to my jet black Honda which I just slithered back in (ain't that suspicious?) upon the sighting as I knew what he was really coming out to do: reprimand! Peeking inside the passenger window, he warned me to shelve the camera and that I wasn't permitted to take photos of the store for those security reasons.

But why? This is it. This is the true face of Toys "R" Us in its prime - not New York City! It may not have a ferris wheel, Godzilla-sized Barbie houses, flashy lights or what such but that's not quintessential Toys "R" Us magic. This is. Listen up corporate, how washed over do you think kids are today that stores must be white-out? It was shortly after I got penalized verbally when I was reminded how much Toys "R" Us is not quite its former self and how seemingly forgotten stores like these contain vestiges reminiscent of what children of the 80's and 90's cherished and what this household brand of toys stores were all about.
Well there's, of course, security reasons which, being a hobbyist photographer of all that includes malls, understood completely as I know the drills. Doesn't mean I have to like it, nor do I have to comply, but we have to respect those just doing their jobs. Did this manager care that Clay was a rarity of its class banking on two decades and was a unique experience one might have to seek miles of travel to see? This should be a smalltime tourist attraction! But New York City is.


Satisfyingly, I left the next (humid) morning on a long trip back easterly on I-90, in between pesky construction zones and a $7 toll gladly acknowledging myself with plenty of photos that night manager didn't know just how many my overzealous spirit allowed me to take earlier that day.

Thanks to much research and pictures by Daniel Fife and his own travels, a few others, including friends of ours at the Ames Fan Club forums like HudsonValleyJack have been keeping tabs on many Toys "R" Us stores in the Northeast region of the country and the state of many stores in New York. With their help, I'm able to provide you with these images.


Apart Clay, New York, most upstate and southern-tier New York remain to be lasting netherealms of places to discover such antiquities and other stores that seem to have fallen through the cracks with some stores cosmetically lagging behind and Toys R Us stores are not much exception. As of late, many stores have seen the brunt of lazy, shameless remodeling or paint jobs all across the land, and they extend to ones in west of Clay in the Buffalo and Rochester regions; Amherst, Willamsville and another in Hamburg.


Down on the southern-tier, there appear to be lone servants remaining within the fallout of the 2006 closures. Survivors like a pitifully repainted, but immaculately retro Horseheads store (with rainbow-colored walls inside!) within a suburb and shopping haven west of Elmira and another in Johnson City, whose in the midst of its third renovation, speculatively ensuing a flooding which occurred there not too long ago as well as the addition of a Babies "R" Us store, oddly leaving the Kids "R" Us on the other side standing vacant.

I continue to wonder why some Toys "R" Us, and stores in general, but especially Clay, never received any renovation while every store around it has been touched-up in some form. Why have they been left behind in facades of yesteryear, beyond previously updated stores? We've looked into possible reasons for why stores with older decor and facades exist far beyond their years, even when surrounding locations get the fixins. I usually pass up on speculation but we'll entertain a few reasons why Clay might remain timewarped the way it is.
  • Financial troubles or stores that don't pull in enough revenue usually damn themselves excusing modernizations leading for stores to look old or distressed. The Clay store is located approximately 57 miles from its next store in New Hartford. When the company announced the 87 store closures and conversions of 2006, Clay managed to survive while one to the immediate south in DeWitt, located far-off from Shoppingtown Mall didn't make the cut. It appears the company favors the strategy of keeping stores close to regional malls vital as they know it keeps sales steady unless there's a crowding of them. It is very possible that for years the company has noticed declining sales within the Clay store and have yielded renovation efforts for fear they will decide to shutter it in coming year(s).
  • Familiarity helps with customers. The former DeWitt store was built in 1992 and obviously didn't perform as well as Clay, which was built in 1988. The areas of both locations, however, are identical with just a small factor: the Clay store being located directly off Interstate (and State Route) 481 and DeWitt well off the highway. Despite the DeWitt store being newer in design, Clay may have been more well-kept as well as excelling in sales.
  • Area, like familiarity, is certainly a player. Located next to a regional shopping mall, Great Northern Mall (also built in 1988) and along a strong, growing retail strip helps the store survive despite its somewhat isolated position of being apart of the mall's property. To access the Clay store from Route 31, you'll have to enter the mall grounds. Also, if an area is meshed with crime, it could cause a ripple effect with sales, traffic, and overall cosmetic image of the store not wanting to see change. Clay's older look continues to baffle within most of Route 31 retail looking fresh and continually expanding with new business. Crime, as it is, is not a problem in Clay. As a matter of fact, the town itself is about as country bumpkin as Farmington, Connecticut.
  • Year Built could have explained why Clay is steeped in its 1988 colors, but it's hard to buy that now. As we found before, 1989 was the last year the company rolled out the classic brown/striped model (still evident on the Bangor, Maine store albeit roof repainted white). At this point, Clay wasn't in need of renovations while times may be coming close now for the store's fate. Johnson City remodeled its store shortly after the millennial bend, when "Concept 2000" was reaching out to some falling behind stores when just recently the chain has remodeled the store again no more than three years later following the post-Concept 2000 renovation for a Babies "R" Us annex, whilst leaving a vacant Kids "R" Us store aside it.

We'd like your input and possibly stories and pictures of your own to share with us. Maybe you can explain how the company or retail industry works in general when it comes to renovating stores. If you've got anything, shoot it over to me at or leave a comment. We greatly appreciate anything of the sort!

Also, check out our complete photo set on my Yahoo! Photos. I also apoligize in advance; you'll have to chug through most of the rather snoozer Great Northern Mall pictures to see them.


Anonymous said...

Nice job on the hunting down the last old Toys "R" Us around this part of the country. This brings back really old memories *sigh*.

I always use to go to the Toys "R" Us in Waterford (across from the Crystal Mall), which opened in 1985. The Pull Ticket Video Game area, that is where I beat the Donkey Kong Country games! Way back 10 years ago.

In 97' or 98', the Waterford location went all Concept 2000. Pfft, all these new schemes since 1989 are llaammmeeee. They had it, perfect, with the original....But then again, other people may have different opinions.


P.S. If you haven't looked at this site, here, you might find it interesting, and a bit freaky:

P.S.S. Speaking of Crystal Mall, I FINALLY found that picture of what the Crystal Mall's floors (and wall trimmings!) use to look like. It use to have some pink and turquiose (typical 80s) paint on some of the white walls it seems. I'll TRY to get the picture scanned.

Nicholas M. DiMaio said...

Excellent find, Joseph. I would greatly like to see that Crystal Mall photo and would be a fine addition to my page on the mall. Per usual, vintage Connecticut mall photos are truly golden material for the site.

Malls of America and its founder Keith Milford run an incredible archivist site widely known in this circle. Love it.

I, too, remember the Waterford Toys "R" Us store. I would occasionally beg my mother to stop in after a trip to the mall. Still don't know when Waterford renovated its exterior though my ultimate guess is probably 2001 or 2002. It was one of the final brown/rainbow stores in Connecticut (it came down between Danbury, Milford, East Haven and Waterford but not confirmably in that order).

On something of an unrelated note, Donkey Kong Country 1&2 are now on Virtual Console if you're lucky enough to have yourself a Wii.

Anonymous said...

Sure, I plan on buying a 10 years from now! Oh yes and a 20 years from now....when the price drops a few hundred bucks!

I've lost my interest in new gaming systems since 2003. I'm still a fan of the old stuff though. I have a classic NES with 70 different games....including World Class Track Runner, complete with the running pad (GREAT EXERCISE)!

Ok so anyways, I am going by Waterford today, I'll try to stop at the library and get that Crystal Mall picture Scanned, then I will send it to you.


P.S. News with the Trumbull Mall. There is construction going on there. Last time I went by that place, there was a couple of moving cranes there.

And here is a bit of history, My aunt told me that she remembered what that mall use to look like. The shuttered former macy's store and its wing were the only part of that mall since its 1964 opening, AND the mall use to have Linoleum Flooring! The escalator in that section is new. The replaced it about a year ago. The last one was original to the mall and it was all chrome, including the moving railings!

Anonymous said...

I think the reasons why these Toys R Us's are not renovated is because it has to do with the area it's located and how it's performing financially.

Take for example the old Toys R Us in Waterbury.

That store didn't even bother to do a major renovation all the way through the late 1990s.

Theres two reasons for this:

One is that the area of Waterbury (as well as the state) from the early to mid 1990s was in a deep recession that was due to the massive loss of it's brass industry. You have to remember that manufacturing and brass making was what put Waterbury on the map. Their economy highly relied on manufacturing and so when the factories moved out of town, the economy basically crashed. So since Waterbury's economy bottomed out, and was hardly growing, the area didn't have the money to spend on decadent things such as renovating a store.

Two, consider how much sales this store actually did compared to Danbury,Norwalk,West Hartford,Manchester,and other more highly visible and larger stores. Waterbury was minute in importance and scale compared to the rest of them. It was a store that was a hangnail to the company, sure it did decent sales,but seriously it wasn't a store in highly attractive area. The reason why the old Wolcott Toys R Us store eventually got axed, was that to the company closing it and building a new one wasn't as risky compared to trying to continually maintaining it.

Basically if a store is in a low developed area, and isn't a large generator of revenue usually it won't be scheduled for a overhaul and eventually they'll close it or let the lease run out.

Anonymous said...

edit: when I said "Wolcott" I meant "Wolcott Street"

Livemalls said...

I love seeing that old Toys "Я" Us preserved. The one in Roanoke (Va.) stayed this way until recently, when it got a really crappy paint job on the rainbow planks. Solid blue. Such a shame.

Nicholas M. DiMaio said...

Hey Steven,

I'd love to see a picture of the Roanoke one. Unfortunately, it seems those who haven't been renovated beyond the 1980's rendition of the store will face lame paint jobs in the near future like Woburn, Horseheads and even one I discovered in Portage, Michigan which also got a blue paint job.

Blue and white seem to be the lame duck colors.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nicholas -- I only recently discovered this blog (found it through Laberscar, I believe) and have enjoyed going through your older posts tremendously. I had no idea that there were so many other people out there who were as nostalgic about retail establishments as myself!

Just wanted to add that while reading through this piece on Toys 'R' Us, I thought -- "I wonder if he knows that the Bangor store still has the old-school color scheme," and apparently you do! Not only are your posts informative, they are evidently well-researched as well, and that is very impressive.

I hope to one day see someone do a piece on some of the long-standing shopping centers here in Bangor: the Airport Mall, the Bangor Mall, and the Broadway Shopping Center: I was able to locate a very old photo of the latter on the 'Net (I forget where, so I unfortunately cannot give credit where credit is due) featuring a Grant, Rexall, Kresge, and Zayre...obviously it's been around for quite some time, but I don't know a lot about its history beyond that (currently anchored on either end by a Hannaford supermarket and a recently rebranded TJMaxx/HomeGoods which previously displayed the moniker TJMaxx and More -- I should take a photo of the blatantly obvious label scar as the signage was only changed recently...)

The Airport Mall has also been around for a considerable amount of time (I want to say the late 60s?) but my earliest memories of it come from the 80s when its largest stores were Shop 'n Save (now Hannaford), local department store Freese's, and Rich's Department Store which apparently replaced the Woolco that previously occupied said space in 1983 (but I don't remember that)...

The Bangor Mall has a much shorter history as it was built in the late 70s, but nevertheless it was a major part of my first decade of life -- I remember when Record Town (later f.y.e., now closed) actually sold RECORDS, haha...

In addition to the aging-but-externally-authentic Toys 'R' Us, we also have a long-suffering Kmart that I have a special affinity even still has an operating Little Caesar's Pizza Station.

But I any rate, I mainly just wanted to say well done on the blog, and keep up the good work!


Raz said...

That takes me back, i barely remember when Toys R Us looked like that. I do remember very much the Pull Tickets for video games, as well as the glass cases that showed the game systems and other electronic items they sold, and how after you paid you had to go to the booth to get your games and other ticketed items.

awesome article!

Anonymous said...

This is my Toys R Us, making several trips a week hunting down WWE figures. The store usually is busy, especially on weekends. I cannot see this store under preforming at all. KB closed at the mall, obviously, Wal Mart is an OLD store that is literally falling apart with a new supercenter store scrapped. Target is never really too busy. I cannot see anything else on this strip or in that area of Syracuse for that matter that would take away from TRU's business. At first I have been complaining about the look of my store. But after realizing this store is a one of a kind, I hope it goes another 20 years strong with the same look!

Anonymous said...

This brings back many memories ten years ago of me going to the store in philadelphia and picking out a tonka fire truck everytime I went, and guess what, ten years later I'm a fireman haha.

Anyway I really enjoy the architecture of the old stores. All of the philadelphia stores were revamped around 2000. One has a design that I have never seen on any other store; the front is a giant blue quilt-like surface with the toys R us logo on it, very plain haha. It still has the glass exit door thingy though. The other two I know of in the sity are just plain white buildings with the brown strips around them.

I know I keep going on and on haha, but it is very interesting how they remodeled the cottman avenue toys R us in philly. It originally had the brown roof with the striped sides and the doors were not in the front by the parking lot, but in a small walkway joining the toys r us entrance and the Clover entrance. The interior was very drab, it was drop ceiling instead of the warehouse style. I was wondering if this was a specific period of store, or is this one of a kind? Any way, they remolded it all white with the doors in the front.

This is a great article keep up the good work.

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