Family & Friends

Mourning the Passing of the F.A.O. Schwarz Flagship Store

140119052533181_1The ‘Big Piano’ at the F.A.O. Schwarz toy store in Manhattan.

For me, Fifth Avenue lost some of its Christmastide sparkle this year. What was missing? The 150-year-old wonderland at 58th Street—a real wonderland, accessible not through a looking glass but through the doors of 767 Fifth Avenue. For F.A.O. Schwarz, America’s oldest toy store, had closed its doors in July, the victim of rising rent.

With the iconic store go my memories of past Christmases and their association with some of my children’s happy moments.  I remember trying to make my commuter train in Grand Central, sprinting while rolling a Barbie’s Dream House on a wheeled luggage cart. On another Christmas Eve I carried home a giant Patrick the Pup. And picture the delight of my kids when they received custom-bound books with personalized stories. 

F.A.O. Schwarz, home of the six-foot stuffed giraffe and the danceable piano (that is, a giant keyboard on the floor with keys so big you could dance on, as Tom Hanks did in the movie Big.) There is nothing like the over-the-top, fairy-tale atmosphere that was the flagship store.

The prices, too, were over the top. Still just to thread your way around the 45,000-square-foot, three-level store, marveling at the innovative toys, was a Christmas treat.

I had my most remarkable F.A.O. experience in late 1986, when the store moved from its old Fifth Avenue quarters to 767 Fifth—a space that made the beloved old place look like Woolworth’s. I got to attend a charity gala celebrating the opening, courtesy of a friend whose high-profile mother-in-law provided us with tickets. This was certainly a gathering of the rich: Lisa Faye Kaplan (now Gordon) described it, in my local Gannett paper, with the headline “Beautiful, Bankrolled Babes in Toyland.”

I was not one of the beautiful, bankrolled babes. It was raining. With my 5-month old son, Keith, in the stroller, I arrived at the event looking like a drowned rat and smelling like wet wool.

I quickly realized that I would have to check the stroller and diaper bag. The place was a zoo, and I seemed to be the only impoverished person there (besides Keith). Right away I bumped into a college friend (I’ll call her Margaux) with her perfect children and husband, who all looked as if they’d stepped out of Town & Country magazine.

Kaplan wrote, “The well-heeled crowd—we’re talking filthy rich—towed their tots and nannies into the toy-filled store that features a hot-red, kiddy-sized Ferrari for $12,000 and a new children’s clothing department, which sells tiny moire and lame dresses for $240.”

Keith was well-behaved, and of course he loved the stuffed animals.  He even fell asleep. But suddenly I felt ominous rumblings in his diaper; I cursed the fact that I had checked the diaper bag. But needn’t have worried, because you couldn’t get near the ladies’ room. I tried to eat some of the delicious hors d’oeuvres with my free hand, but ended up with mustard on Keith and crumbs in the cowl neck of my sweater.

The only famous people I saw were Jerry Hall and Bill Buckley. After an hour enduring the crowds, I decided to say goodbye to my hosts and went to wait my turn in the coat-check room (which was the GM showroom, to give you an idea of the size of the crowd.)  Even Jerry Hall was trying to get her coat. Well, they found my coat, but not my stroller and diaper bag. I almost karate-chopped a woman who was putting her infant into a one-piece L.L. Bean snowsuit identical to Keith’s. She claimed that it was the first time she had used it too, so we had a nice chat (but I was sure she had stolen mine!) Finally, the nice coat-check guy found everything, including the L.L. Bean snowsuit, and I got Keith all ready and tried to make it to the exit—which, with a stroller, was quite a task.  With an expletive I started rolling over people’s feet and brushing aside small children. 

When I made it outside, yes, it was still raining. I happened to be right next to Margaux and family getting into their limo. She apologized that she couldn’t offer me a ride because their driver had to pick up a business associate of her husband’s at the airport after dropping them off at their townhouse (which, by the way, was 10 blocks from my apartment). I had no money for a cab, but anyway, there weren’t any. So I walked to Bloomingdale’s to catch the M31 bus. My $100 Calvin Klein shoes were ruined. Luckily, two ladies helped me onto the bus and held the stroller. These angels also helped me get off the bus. Of course, when I was getting off the bus some Velcro on the diaper bag grabbed onto my stockings. Have you ever tried walking with a diaper bag attached to your leg???

That experience didn’t dissuade me from putting F.A.O. Schwarz on a toy-store pedestal. Christmas shopping is different now.  Brick-and-mortar shopping has been overtaken by online shopping.  I am the first to say that I love shopping with a click and having my purchases delivered to my door, lightning-fast with free shipping and free returns.  F.A.O. still lives at FAO.com. But I will miss the fantasy world that used to reside in 767 Fifth Avenue.

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  • Nancy Perez December 31, 2015 at 1:26 pm

    We’ve shared so many hysterical activities over the years – why couldn’t I have been there too – it’s all too funny, but I have to admit F.A.O. holds a special place in my heart as well. I had a work associated who for years took her children there every Christmas but told them it was a museum so ONLY for looking!

    Reply
  • hillsmom December 28, 2015 at 11:45 am

    Dear Susan, Much too difficult to type a lucid comment while laughing out loud! Wonderful essay. Thanks

    Reply