Ahh, the whimsical days of my youth. As I’m sure most of my loyal readers know, I have a certain fondness for the things of my youth: Transformers, G.I. Joe, He-Man, MASK and the like. As we grow up, we are expected to cast these things aside, and begin focusing on the things of the adult world. And it might seem easier for me, because not only have most of those toys gone missing, but most of the stores where I got them now cease to exist.
I bag groceries. That grocery store is in a mall. And trust me, it’s the deadest mall in the world. That grocery store and the TD Bank are the only things that I remember having been in that mall forever. But, when I was a kid, that mall had the best little toy store that I could remember. Sadly, I don’t remember the name of that toy store. It was just “the toy store in Drayton.” But it is the one toy store that I have the most stories for. Here’s a smattering of them:
One wintry evening, my Dad and I were waiting around in the mall for my mother to return from somewhere (where, I don’t remember). As we waited, I eventually started browsing through the toy store, and found their huge display of He-Man figures. I looked over the stand, and spotted Spikor, “evil master of armored combat.” Now, what had always distressed me about my Masters of the Universe collection was how the villains were vastly outnumbered. How could Skeletor stand a chance at conquering Greyskull if his only ally was the moronic evil He-Man clone Faker? I went to Dad, and I pleaded my case as to how my villains were vastly outnumbered. My Dad, opened up his wallet, and gave me enough money to get Spikor. Of course, the villains still failed to conquer Greyskull, but now it wasn’t because they were outnumbered.
A few years later, the toy I was deeply into was MASK. In the store one day, I spotted the Pit Stop Catapult. It was this little gas station thing that turned into a tank. And, it was the last MASK toy that they had on their shelf. I knew I had to have it. I went to Mom and pleaded my case. My Mom said no, pointed out that we were running late, and said we should get going. But I wanted the Pit Stop Catapult. It was the last one on the shelf, I pleaded. It’ll be gone when we come back next time. But Mom still said no. Time to pull the ultimate stunt. This is the only time in my childhood I consciously decided to throw a tantrum to get what I wanted. (I’m sure Mom can think of more, but this is the only one I remember.) And it worked. Mom bought it for me, and I loved it. Of course, next time I went to the toy store, the Pit Stop Catapult was the only MASK toy they had in stock. But I didn’t care. I got what I wanted.
Yup. Most of my Masters of the Universe collection was purchased at that store. A lot of birthday presents, too. I’m fairly certain that’s where my parents bought me Autobot Headmaster Highbrow and Castle Greyskull. I remember they had this little corner in the back full of model railway stuff, and that’s where my brother got all his model railway stuff. But that store is gone now. It closed down about 10 years ago. There’s a frame store there, now. I didn’t notice that it had closed until about 3 years after the fact, mainly because my parents’ business affairs now took them more towards Stony Plain/Spruce Grove than Drayton Valley.
It was in the late 80’s that a mall was built in Spruce Grove. And in that mall, there was another great little toy store: Hillhaven Toys. As soon as you walked into the store, all of the G.I. Joe stuff (and the whole action figure section) was on your immediate left. I never had to go farther into the store than that. I remember Visionaries had just premiered, and I spotted the Spectral Knight Witterquick on the shelf. I thought I’d go back for him later, as I didn’t have the money that day. (Of course, he wasn’t there again). They had a section devoted to model rockets, and it was from that store that I had my brief flirtation with rocketry (something I always consider getting back into on sunny summer days). It was where I first spotted the G.I. Joe Space Shuttle the Crusader, and I’m also fairly certain that’s where Santa bought it for me. Also, that toy store is gone now, closed down in about 1991 or 92. A Work World is there now.
Alas, not even the city of Red Deer was safe from my poison touch. Of course, my grandparents live in Red Deer, and whenever they’d take us kids to Parkland Mall, we’d have to go to Toys and Wheels (was it Toys and Wheels? It was Toys and something.). My grandparents were wonderfully soft touches, and that’s where a lot of gifts from the grandparents were bought. I remember that all the board games were on the far east wall, action figures on the next aisle over, and right by the tills were all these bins full of $0.99 toys. Lots of G.I. Joes and Transformers were bought there. Then, in the early 90’s, they did a massive remodeling. Rather than running north-south, the shelves ran east-west. Board Games were moved to the back corner. Action figures were moved to the second shelf in. But that didn’t last long, though. They closed around 1995, and a health food store sits there now.
My first exposure to a “big box” toy retailer was Toy City in West Edmonton Mall. I have two really fond memories of Toy City. The first one was my tenth birthday. In the mail, from those aforementioned soft touch grandparents, I had gotten $20. It was the first time I had ever called a $20 bill “mine,” and it was the most money I had ever held at that point in my life. I knew exactly what I wanted to buy with it. One week after my birthday, I was going to go up in a helicopter with my Dad (it sometimes works into his line of work, and he’d bring one of us kids along). But, sadly, we were rained out, so a contingency plan was put into play. Dad was going to take me into the city and…Toy City. When we arrived at Toy City, I charged though the aisles as though on autopilot. Either fate or grand design brought me to the right place, and much to my joy, there were hundreds of them on the shelf. As if to really make it seem like greater forces were at play, the total cost of this toy was…$19.99. I snatched it off the shelf, walked up to the till and purchased…Soundwave! Only my most favorite and most coveted Transformer. Seeing as to how Soundwave turned into a walkman with an actual belt clip, I wore him with me wherever I went for the next month. I still haven’t forgiven Sheldon Allen for breaking him.
The second memory involves my brother. His most coveted toy was the G.I. Joe helicopter the Tomahawk. He had his paper route for about a year, and had dutifully saved his money to get the Tomahawk. When he had enough, he pleaded with our parents for a Saturday in the city just so he could get it. Like with me and Soundwave, he went into the store on autopilot, and was led to it as though by the Fates. When he took it up to the till, my Dad made it a point to tell the cashier that this was a special trip to the city just so he could buy it.
Toy City in West Edmonton Mall closed around 1993. I had just begun collecting action figures professionally, and the last thing I bought there was a Borg Drone from the Star Trek: The Next Generation action figure line. That glow-in-the-dark go-kart race track is there now.
Now, there are no small toys stores in small malls, only Toys R Us. Yes, I collect action figures and I’ve bought a large percentage of my collection at Toys R Us, but it just lacks the charm of these smaller toy stores. Why did they close up? Sure, it would be easy to blame all this on Toys R Us, as all these stores closed in the early 90’s, just as Toys R Us was making their big push into Western Canada. I e-mailed quite a few friends as I this column first occurred to me, hoping that this would have been more of a universal thing than just me, but sadly, my pleas went unanswered. The only who did respond was Chuck, who told me that Camrose had always been devoid of such small toy stores, but that he had equally fond memories of the toy section in Zeller’s. But Zeller’s still stands, and they still have their toy section. Me? They’re all gone, replaced with stores of the adult world. It’s sad in a way. It’s as though the fates are telling me that it’s time to grow up. But I still defy those tricky fates. I still buy my toys, even if it means the toy section at Zeller’s.