ON NOVEMBER 15, 2001, a big, excited crowd gathered at the northeast corner of Broadway and 44th Street. This was the exact same spot where Times Square’s very first crowd had gathered, slightly over a century before, to witness the opening of Hammerstein’s Olympia. Since that time, the Olympia had given way to an early movie theater that had in turn been converted back into a legitimate theater; the whole structure had been torn down to make way for a modern movie emporium, which in turn had been joined to the Bond’s Clothing store and to the International Casino, one of Times Square’s biggest and flashiest nightclubs; the entire complex had slid into disrepair, and the whole structure had been demolished once again. Civilizations had risen and fallen, and risen and fallen again, on this one rich archaeological site. And now a new culture, and a new epoch, had come: this crowd had gathered for the opening of the Toys “R” Us flagship store, the biggest, flashiest retail establishment in the history of Times Square. Oscar Hammerstein had hailed the Olympia as “the grandest amusement temple in the world.” And the press managers for Toys “R” Us surely were exercising no more hyperbole than Hammerstein had when they called the store “the Toy Center of the universe.”
Earlier that day, dozens of attractive young people wearing lime-green T-shirts that said “Xbox” on them had fanned out across Times Square; they were handing out cards that would entitle the bearer to stand in line at midnight and buy the new $299 Microsoft video game machine. Bill Gates himself had agreed to come to the store and sell the first Xbox in the world. And so here, at midnight, were five thousand people calmly and casually snaked around the building. The crowd flooded into the store, bought their games, and happily dispersed. It was a far more professionally managed opening than the Olympia’s had been. But the sale of the video games was, in a way, a pretext for a yet larger event. Over fifty media crews from all over the world came to cover this mind-boggling convergence of global brand names. Afterward, Microsoft’s marketing team calculated that the event created one hundred million “impressions” worldwide.
This beguiling accident of location, in which an early-twenty-firstcentury temple of entertainment is built atop the ruins of a late-nineteenth-century one, leads one to measure the course of history through comparison. The Toys “R” Us flagship store is an exciting, energetic, crowd-pleasing place, as the old Olympia was; and it is monumental, and prodigious, as the Olympia was. It, too, is a “theatrical” place, though of course its theatricality is a means to the end of getting people to buy things. The one was for grown-ups, the other is for kids. The Olympia was also a hopeless folly, while Toys “R” Us is wonderfully efficient, as befits the flagship institution of a $13 billion global enterprise. But perhaps the most striking difference is an evanescent one: Toys “R” Us is not only a store or a company, but a “brand”; and it exists in a world of brands, of which “Times Square” is very much one.
THE CORPORATE OFFICE of Toys “R” Us is situated in an office park just off an exit ramp in suburban New Jersey, about forty-five minutes from the Toy Center of the Universe. The headquarters is a bright, sunny, boxy glass building with toys and stuffed animals on landings and in open spaces. It feels like a pleasant place to work. On the top floor is the office of John Eyler, the company’s chairman and CEO. Eyler is a blond, square-jawed corporate executive with an earnest, straightforward manner and a basso profundo voice. He is a native of Washington State, a graduate of the Harvard Business School, a career retailer. Before he ran Toys “R” Us, he was CEO of F.A.O. Schwarz, which was the biggest toy retailer in the world in the day when the toy industry consisted largely of small family-owned stores. Toys “R” Us was part of the new world that had eclipsed F.A.O. Schwarz. It was a publicly owned firm that sold inexpensive toys in giant supermarkets, a ubiquitous presence in suburban shopping malls, with 1,500 stores around the globe. But Toys “R” Us had, in turn, been eclipsed by Wal-Mart, which also sold toys as commodities, but sold them even cheaper. Toys “R” Us hired Eyler in 2000 with the hope of regaining the market share it had lost.
Eyler recognized that Toys “R” Us could not compete with Wal-Mart on price and instead needed to forge a new and distinctive identity, more service-oriented, more fun, more dramatic. Eyler and his team retrained salespeople, changed the layout of stores, forged exclusive relationships with prestigious suppliers like Steven Spielberg (himself a powerful brand name in the world of toys). But Eyler understood that he had to not only change Toys “R” Us but find a platform from which to proclaim those changes. Toys “R” Us needed a flagship store. “A flagship store,” Eyler said, when I visited him one very pleasant afternoon, “is important to serve as a tangible symbol of change, to be the ultimate example of what the strategy is when the strategy is fully articulated.” Eyler felt that the flagship store had to be in New York, since New York was where the media, the big buyers, the finance industry, and the nation’s largest toy fair were located. And Times Square was the obvious location. Eyler said, “We chose Times Square because it has evolved into the highest-energy location in the city. Times Square is increasingly becoming the crossroads of the world. It has become a family-friendly place, and we felt that we were a continuation of that trend.” Eyler understood that he could re-brand the company by associating with the brand that was the new Times Square: exciting, energetic, urbane, yet clean and family-friendly. And the effect was reciprocal, for he was, as he said, reinforcing the Times Square brand by virtue of joining it.
Eyler hired Joanne Newbold, a store designer who had created the F.A.O. branch stores during his tenure, to design the interior of the new store. And he told her: “I want to create new traditions for kids in New York City.” The new store would feel magical to children, as F.A.O. Schwarz does; it would also be designed so as to transport an unprecedented volume of customers efficiently through the vast space and toward the various selling areas. Newbold created an interior radically different from the bland, bright supermarkets Toys “R” Us had built all over the world: a vast, open cube, an almost raw space with theatrical lighting hung from catwalks, bright colors, a glass elevator rising through the middle. The glass façade of the store is covered with square canvas panels, 155 in all, each of which carries eight images; the panels can be rotated like a shade, so that Toys “R” Us is effectively covered by an ever-changing billboard. The panels can also be rendered transparent so that pedestrians can look straight into the store. And what they see, from the outside, is the centerpiece of the store, of the company, and of the Toy Universe itself: a sixty-foot-high Ferris wheel that rises from the basement toward the upper reaches of the store, its giant red neon spokes flashing clockwise as the ride sedately rolls through the store, providing children and their parents an eagle eye of the store’s merchandise. It is also, at $2.50 a head, just about the cheapest form of entertainment in Times Square.
Newbold gave me a tour of the store several weeks after the opening. It quickly became plain that she is not only a highly professional store designer but a student of retail engineering. As we stood at the head of the escalator looking down toward the basement, with people pouring past us onto the main floor, she said, “Originally we thought we would use a merry-go-round or something like that. Then we thought, What a great way to make people look up, look down. As you cycle up, you can look around and see what’s on the floor.” The Ferris wheel was also a marketing device of its own. The names on the cars—Toy Story, Pokémon, Nickelodeon, and so on—represented not just familiar toys but “branding partners.” Each one was a brand of its own, sharing in the new Toys “R” Us brand and adding their luster to it, as Microsoft had done. Toys “R” Us charged each firm $250,000 for the “naming rights” (though the actual proceeds from the ride go to charity).
Newbold explained that a ride originating in the basement had an additional advantage. “Besides coming in and saying, ‘Oh, wow!,’ in order to board the Ferris wheel you have to go down to the lowest level, which traditionally in New York is very hard to get people down to.” We took the escalator down to the lower level and walked along a path to the edge of the “R Zone,” the electronics area that is any toy store’s highest-volume selling space. Everything in the R Zone was zapping, bonking, and blinking all at once. Newbold had to raise her voice. “If you’re interested in electronics,” she cried enthusiastically, “you’re going to get sucked right in!” It was the Christmas season, and the crowd in the store was swelling; the sound system boomed out “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and then “Feliz Navidad.” A magician at a station was demonstrating card tricks. Images were flashing across video screens. The Ferris wheel, with its great red neon spokes, was rolling. Noise, lights, crowds, motion— everything was happening at once. It all felt like 42nd Street under glass.
And yet at the same time the store had been ingeniously engineered so as to channel the feverish energies it released. The selling floors are organized in a “racetrack” format so that, Newbold said, “you get pulled from one department to another by seeing something ahead of you.” Every other Toys “R” Us store has an armada of shopping carts parked near the front entrance, but shopping carts would take up too much room in this dense urban setting; instead, shoppers get big shoulder bags. This could pose a problem of its own, but the store specializes in what Newbold calls “affordable portables.” Newbold obviously had given a good deal of thought to the problem of traffic management in what was destined to be the busiest toy store in the world. As we stood looking into the R Zone, she said, “We only have eight Play Station positions, so it won’t become an arcade. What we tried to do was have the perception of interactivity without real interaction. Knowing that the traffic would be as dense as it is, we didn’t want people pushing buttons on things, and starting things and stopping them, because they would break in a day, and people would come the next day and they wouldn’t work. That would be negative.” For all its theatricality, the store continuously instructs shoppers that it is, after all, a store.
We rode an escalator back upstairs and continued on to the second floor. This is the store’s most dazzling retail area. Immediately to the right of the escalator were twenty-foot-high versions of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building made of Lego. Beyond them was the pièce de résistance—an animatronic Tyrannosaurus rex that emitted a mighty roar, just scary enough to give little kids a mild fright and make them come back for more. The roar cycle can be adjusted, so that on busy days the dinosaur can roar faster to keep the kids moving along. The T. rexmarked the selling area for Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park toys, with which the company has an exclusive relation. Next came the silver space-ship of E.T., along with an animatronic version of the lovable alien. Then there was a Candyland that looked like the board game come to life, at least if you were four. Continuing on to the other side of the floor, we came to the Fisher-Price area, which, in a nice touch, had a little tableau of Times Square itself, looking very calm and sensible, with its little plastic people waiting at traffic lights. And then there was a giant Monopoly board, and a giant train set, and at the back of the floor an entire house for Barbie, with its very own elevator. Newbold explained that the displays had been designed so as to be understood from the Ferris wheel. “These are like instant visuals for kids. They don’t have to read a sign; they don’t have to read a graphic. It’s just like, ‘I see that dinosaur; when we get off, I’ve got to go over there.’” The whole store was semiotics for the preliterate.
Within weeks of its opening, the new Toys “R” Us store became one of the great tourist destinations of Times Square. It was a familiar name, whether you came from Decatur or Beijing, in an unfamiliar setting; and of course the kids loved it. It wasn’t unusual for the store to attract 100,000 visitors in a day, or to do $1 million worth of business—thirty truckloads’ worth of toys, as Elliott Wahle, the store manager, proudly pointed out to me, with each truck having to maneuver its way into Times Square, pull into the cramped loading dock, and then make a rapid exit. Vast crowds surged through the store even during the fallow season after Christmas. Wahle said that he was often asked whether it bothered him that so many people came to the new store to gawk rather than buy. “And the answer,” he said, “is, ‘Not in the least.’ This is a $13 billion business focused on a name. And the visit reinforces our brand in the minds of every single one of those visitors.” Wahle described the store as “the single greatest execution of the retail-tainment idea.” The store could lose money and still be an immense success, because it would make shoppers more inclined to go to the Toys “R” Us back home.
BUILDINGS, AND BUSINESS VENTURES, in Times Square have risen and fallen over the decades like so many stage sets; one of the few persistent elements in this rootless and transitory realm has been the dynastic real estate families, who never sell anything if they don’t have to, and thus pass their property intact from one generation to the next. The Moss family, which owns the parcel on 44th Street that Toys “R” Us leased, has had a presence in Times Square since the heyday of Oscar Hammerstein. B. S. Moss, the family patriarch, started building nickelodeons in Times Square in 1905; his peers were the Jewish entertainment moguls who went west and founded Hollywood. (It was his brother Paul who closed down burlesque as Mayor La Guardia’s license commissioner.) B.S. opened vaudeville theaters, which he ultimately folded into the Keith-Albee syndicate. Then he expanded into movie theaters. He bought the parcel on 44th Street when the Olympia came down, and in 1936, he and a partner opened up the New Criterion, a thoroughly modern movie house that they called “The Theatre of Tomorrow.” Engineers in a “tone-control booth” controlled “the slightest variations or modulation in sound volume,” while a “four-unit cooling system” maintained a constant, pleasant temperature. The New Criterion, the flagship of the B. S. Moss empire, was a self-conscious symbol of an elegant, streamlined modernity. Many of the blockbuster movies of the next three decades opened there, including The Ten Commandments, Lawrence of Arabia, and Funny Girl.
At the same time, B.S.’s brother Joe, along with a group of investors, built the International Casino on the northern corner of the old Olympia site. The International was the last word in refinement, luxe, and swank. Here is how a reporter described the opening, in September 1937: “Hollywood on Broadway—a glittering gallimaufry of chromium and glass, crystal fountains, sliding doors, revolving stages, staircases which descend from heaven (when they work), a stainless steel escalator and a three-story spiral bar, where you can drink your way up and fall your way down, or vice versa, as befits your mood.” Life magazine did one of its “ Life Goes to a Party” series about the International soon after it opened, and the author noted, with what seems admirable candor for a family magazine, that “most people go to the International Casino to see a hundred-odd youngish girls in various states of undress.” The article’s opening photo spread shows a glistening chrome escalator with a tuxedoed headwaiter standing at the top, and then half a dozen beauties in two-piece bathing suits balancing spinning plates on long rods. Inside, Life offered pictures of bathing beauties descending from the ceiling in an elaborate trapezelike contraption and another riding bareback on a revolving stuffed horse.
And then, of course, this swanky, sexy, air-conditioned culture crumbled away just as surely as Hammerstein’s opulent Gilded Age culture had done before it. The Bond’s Clothing store booted out the nightclub in the forties, and in the sixties the New Criterion became just another movie theater (though it never stooped to porno). Times Square embarked on its long, slow slide into irrelevance and decay. B.S. and Joe Moss’s son sold the parcel in 1968, and then his son, Charles, bought it back ten years later. By that time, the block was a huddle of tacky variety stores. The parcel seemed about as valuable as it had when Oscar Hammerstein bought it in 1893. And then, suddenly, by the mid-eighties, with the building boom provoked by the new zoning laws, property along Broadway was worth a very great deal. Moss held out for a long time. He didn’t want another office building to go up where the New Criterion and the International Casino had stood—although it is also true that many of his proposed deals fell through. And when he finally agreed to lease the property to Toys “R” Us, he felt that he had found a tenant worthy of his family’s history.
Had he? Not exactly. All those other Times Squares, the Times Square of the Olympia and the New Criterion and the International, catered to a cosmopolitan taste, a taste for elegance and nocturnal drama, the drama of grand settings and fine clothing and unpredictable experience. They were for grown-ups seeking a grown-up fantasy. And it is that grown-up sense of fantasy, the fantasy of the spiral bar and the umpteen tiers of box seats rising into the upper air, that has vanished from the spanking-new Times Square. There is fantasy aplenty, at Madame Tussaud’s and the ESPN Zone and the Hershey’s candy store; but not for grown-ups. The drama of open-ended experience still lives on the streets; but indoors, fun has been ingeniously, minutely, engineered. Here is the difference between popular culture and mass culture. For a global entertainment firm like Toys “R” Us, Times Square is now a “site,” a branding opportunity, a marketing strategy. It has, amid these vast calculations, been reduced in size and stature. And its particularity has been diminished as well: Toys “R” Us’s very presence makes Times Square more like the other places where Toys “R” Us is present. The Ferris wheel is site-specific “appliqué,” to use Michael Sarkin’s language.
How can you not feel ambivalent about the Toys “R” Us flagship store? To repudiate it is to repudiate mass culture itself, with all its vitality and its electric fantasies and its relentless wish to entertain. To embrace it is to embrace mass culture, with its numbing sensationalism, its two-dimensionality, its gigantism. That Ferris wheel is probably the biggest, and cheapest, attraction in Times Square, but it’s also a reminder of a Ferris wheel that never got built—the one at the heart of the City at 42nd Street project, stillborn in 1980. This was the plan that Mayor Ed Koch dismissed by saying, “People do not come to midtown Manhattan to take a ride on some machine.” The Ferris wheel, to an echt New Yorker like Koch, was strictly Disneyland. And that ride, which bore so heavy a symbolic burden, was an educational device designed to evoke the verticality of the city, its infinitely stratified texture. This one is a marketing device intended to spread out a giant store’s wares from basement to ceiling.
You don’t have to be a dogmatic critic of corporate culture to find the Toys “R” Us store at least faintly sinister; you just have to feel the bombardment of the cheerful booming music and the video monitors and the elevators in the Barbie house and the giant, looming Monopoly board, all of it a minutely orchestrated simulation of the spontaneous life of the place whose brand identity it is so ingeniously exploiting. An adult of only moderately melodramatic sensibility might contemplate the store with the apocalyptic alarm that the new generation of urban critics brings to shopping malls and planned communities. On one particularly insanely crowded day, I saw a friend who had come to buy a Lego for his nephew; he clutched at me like a drowning man in the wild eddy of the crowd and shouted, “It’s hell!” before lurching onward to a cash register.
But of course, the store wasn’t for him; it was for kids. Children are now in the picture in a way they were not before; the functional unit of popular entertainment is no longer “the grown-up,” but “the family.” Times Square, even more than Las Vegas, has surrendered to the hegemony of the family. I saw Toys “R” Us through Alex’s eyes. He and I generally treated it as an amusement park, though the experience sometimes included the purchase of a game for Alex’s GameCube system (which the supremely efficient Toys “R” Us had in stock at Christmastime when every other toy store was out). Once we made the mistake of coming on the Saturday afternoon before Easter, which a salesperson informed us was the second busiest day of the year. We wandered through the pulsing—but not shoving—crowd, pulled ever forward from one sales area to the next, little recking that the “racetrack format” was working its magic on us.
I noticed that about half the customers were black or Hispanic; this was, after all, an inexpensive store with free entertainment, and thus a fulfillment of those democratic traditions to which Bruce Ratner had raised a metaphorical glass. We came to a crowd gathered around a table; it was the display for Rumble Robots, little battery-operated fighting machines. Teams of green bots and red bots were squaring off against each other, with kids clutching controllers on either side. The bout was managed by two cool young guys in black hooded capes—the Rumble Masters. Alex would not leave. Finally he took over a controller for a green bot. And the Rumble Master shouted, “Three . . . two . . . one . . . Rummmble!” It was an eleven-year-old peak experience.
We came back again two weeks later—and the Rumble Robots were gone, as were all the permanent-looking fixtures in the department. Here was capitalism in the raw: all that is solid melts into air. Now an entirely new set of fixtures had been installed to display Sega electronic games. The sales assistant at the display was Deryck Clarke, a thirty-nine-year-old black hipster who plays the French horn in Broadway musicals. He wore a ribbon that said, “I speak German.” Clarke was a New Yorker, and he said, “When I was in school I used to come down here with my homies to play the arcades. I was the Donkey Kong wizard.” Now he had a five-year-old son. I asked him if he regretted the demise of the Times Square he knew as a teenager. “Not really,” he said. “It was sort of menacing. At this stage in my life, I want a place that I can take my family.”