The founder of Toys R Us died today. In a sad irony, Charles Lazarus, 94, died the same day that liquidation sales began for 735 of the colorful, wide-eyed toy meccas for children started from a single store in 1957.
Bloomberg reported that Lazarus died Thursday in New York, quoting a family friend and a former chairman of the company. Lazarus had been chief executive of Toys R Us from its first store in the Maryland suburbs of Washington until 1994.
In that span, the company was acquired by a larger chain, spun off in bankruptcy, and emerged as a publicly traded company in 1978, widening its expansion across the United States.
In the era of pre-Internet retail, Lazarus’ focus of providing dependability — the same comprehensive selection of Barbie, Star Wars, My Little Pony, G.I. Joe and Transformers at every store — made a trip to the big box Toys R Us a reward for a well behaved kid and a lifesaver for a harried parent in mid-December. Lazarus came up with the store’s childlike motifs, such as the backward R in the logo and mascot Geoffrey the Giraffe. Toys R Us also attracted an adolescent cool with its smooth entry into video game sales as the Nintendo Entertainment System resurrected the market in the late 1980s.
But after Lazarus left, retail toy competition got a lot meaner. Walmart became the top toy retailer in the United States in 1998. Toys R Us was acquired in a leveraged buyout by three hedge funds in 2005, sowing the seeds of its demise today.
Toys R Us, deeply indebted to its investor ownership, announced the closing of 180 stores in January, another 200 in February, and finally the whole shooting match last week. As many as 33,000 people could lose their jobs.
Charles Phillip Lazarus was born Oct. 4, 1923 in Washington. He grew up helping his father refurbish and resell bicycles. He served in World War II as a cryptographer, returning from overseas to take over the family shop and replace the bicycle inventory with baby furniture. Soon after, he switched to toys, on the premise they were less durable goods and in constant demand. Lazarus’ first toy-specific store opened in Rockville, Md. in 1957.
He is survived by his daughters, Ruth and Diane, and by millions of children who began a Christmas morning or birthday party cradling a toy or video game bought at one of his stores.