Image: FAO Schwarz
Founded by German immigrant Frederick August Otto Schwarz in 1870, the FAO flagship store pioneered the concept of a toy store as a destination where kids and their parents could spend hours wandering the aisles and ogling toys. The Fifth Avenue, New York City, icon features the giant piano from Big and one of the world’s most dazzling doll selections.
updated 12/24/2008 2:49:10 PM ET 2008-12-24T19:49:10

A couple of years ago I took the family on a winter vacation to New York City to soak up the holiday atmosphere. The longest lines that week weren’t in the Empire State Building lobby, at the Statue of Liberty ferry or any of the Big Apple’s other landmarks, but in a breezy plaza at Fifth Avenue and 58th Street, where the crowd to get into FAO Schwarz snaked around the block.

It wasn’t until I got inside that it became clear how a mere toy store could trump everything else that Manhattan offers between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Far more than a shopping experience, the hour we spent wandering the aisles at FAO was more like visiting a museum of everything that children hold dear. And for me — and all of the other bright-eyed grown-ups — it was a trip down memory lane to the toys we knew as kids.

That’s the thing about great toy stores: Much like the best children’s films, they work on two levels, something for the kids and their wish-I-was-still-a-kid parents. Like any good escape, these shops also offer a transitory (yet incredibly vivid) diversion from the woes of the outside world. And lord knows we could all use a little bit of escapism these days.

America’s most unique toy stores are found from coast to coast, in big cities like San Francisco and Chicago, and small towns like Michigan City, Ind., and Shelburne, Vt. Some of them specialize in a particular item (trains, kites, teddy bears) while others continue to thrive as generalist stores that seem to stock everything under the pre-pubescent sun.

The Dinosaur Farm in South Pasadena, Calif., is typical of the specialty toy stores that have flourished in recent years. Former rock musician Dave Plenn opened the shop in 1994, a year after "Jurassic Park" brought prehistoric creatures back into the spotlight again. But he says his wife — who was then working for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles — rather than the blockbuster movie proved the inspiration for the dino store.

“Every time a bus would unload at the museum, the kids would head immediately for the dinosaur room,” says Plenn. “And through our own son I discovered there are two or three ‘dinomaniacs’ in every classroom. But there are lots of adults who collect dinosaurs too.”

Inventory runs a broad gamut from T. Rex sneakers with eyes that light up to “Paleontologist in Training” T-shirts and a battery-operated triceratops with a remote shaped like a prehistoric trilobite. But Plenn says his most popular items are Magnetic Dinosaur Bingo and highly detailed dinosaur action figures produced by a French company called Papo.

“I don’t know how the dinosaur bug hits kids,” says Plenn. “A lot of our customers are only two or three years old and they’re correcting their parents on how to say the names. It’s like a gamma ray hits them in middle of the night and they wake up saying ‘velociraptor.’” He adds that little girls are just as much into dinos as boys, although there is a difference: Boys seem to prefer carnivores, girls the plant eaters.

Running on tradition
A more traditional specialty store is Mile Zone, which sells die-cast scale model cars like Matchbox, Hot Wheels and Johnny Lightning. Owner Russ Burke started the store in Phoenix, Ariz., ten years ago, but moved the entire operation — and his thousands of tiny cars — to a sprawling 5,000-square-foot store in Michigan City, Ind., three years ago.

“It’s such an addicting hobby,” says Burke, who admits that he originally created the store as a means to feed his own toy car collection. “Once you buy your first, you’re hooked forever.” The store stocks around 30,000 vehicles, from miniature ERTL tractors and Yat Ming’s vintage fire engines (how about that 1923 Maxim?) to incredibly detailed Minichamps sports cars that sell for as much as $80 each.

Mile Zone’s customers range from kids with a craving for speedy toys to grown-ups who view the model cars as time travel back to their youth. “Muscle cars are really big right now because most of the serious collectors are in their 30s, 40s and 50s. I find that most car collectors go for things that bring back their childhood.”

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Chugging along
The country’s largest toy train store is the Charles Ro Supply Company, which sprawls through a huge redbrick building in Malden, Mass. Founder Charlie Ro started out as a hairdresser who collected vintage Lionel trains as a hobby. By the early 1970s he was selling trains as a sideline at one of his four beauty parlors and taking mail orders over a wall-mounted phone in the back of the shop. By 1980, Ro was selling a million dollars worth of miniature choo choos a year and decided that trains (rather than hair) were the key to the future.

“We’re now the largest Lionel dealer in the world,” says Charlie Ro Jr., who helps his father run the ever-expanding business. “We sell tens of thousands of train cars every year and have somewhere between four and five thousand cars in inventory at all times.”

Customers young and old are lured into the shop by a huge model train layout that features six trains running through various miniature rural and urban landscapes. But there’s plenty of other distractions, including the Thomas the Tank corner for younger train enthusiasts.

Charles Ro also manufactures its own toy trains (under the USA Trains label) in a factory adjacent to its block-long store. Larger than the 1:48 (O scale) Lionel trains, these highly detailed 1:29 (G scale) trains were inspired by popular European models and are suitable for outdoor use — hence their nickname “garden trains.” Among its creations is the hulking Big Boy — the largest die-cast locomotive of all time. According to Ro, the larger sizes allow for more “rugged handling” by younger children and many models have working parts that enhance play value.

One of the oldest
Across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Johnny’s Toys in Covington, Ky., is one of the nation’s oldest general toy stores and typical of the independent operations that have been able to survive and even thrive in the face of big box competition.

Founded in the 1930s as a candy store, Johnny’s evolved into school supplies and then full-time toys. With more than 20,000 different items, the store sells just about anything you could ever imagine in the realm of toys.

But Johnny’s also hosts private parties in the Birthday Castle, caters to new parents with a Baby Steps gift registry and most recently created a mini theme park called Totter’s Otterville right inside the store that includes rides, food, characters and “play to learn” activities.

Older still is the FAO Schwarz flagship in Manhattan, which started life in 1870 and is still the king of all American toy stores. But even FAO has been forced to diversify in order to keep pace with the likes of the animatronically awesome Toys R Us at nearby Times Square.

Among its recent innovations are a Barefoot Books storytelling venue, a candy shop (naturally) called FAO Schweetz, and a Zutano children’s clothing boutique, all of this under the same roof at the famous Fifth Avenue location.

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