Sunday, June 15, 2008

Bargain Town is now Toys "R" Us!

It had to be the rare late 60’s/early 70’s Chicago area kid who was unfamiliar with the famous Bargain Town! Bargain Town! Bargain Town! commercials that ran incessantly on area kids’ shows during those years. These commercials were a fixture, particularly on the popular Ray Rayner and Friends show, which ran on WGN from 7 to 9 am, starting long before the station was syndicated nationally on cable TV. If you’ve never heard of Ray, ask anyone who grew up in the Chicago area between 1960 and 1980 and you’re likely to see a big smile form on their face. This was an era in which a number of TV stations in major markets produced their own programming for the “youngsters”. Somewhat corny, often made on a low budget, yet nonetheless very creative, these shows are fondly remembered by many. Today, an A.M. flip across most cities’ channels yields six different versions of “Good Morning America”, while the kiddos are banished to the likes of Nickolodeon (“krabby patties, anyone?”) or the Disney Channel (“stay tuned for Lilo and Stitch 9!”) Certainly those were better times in some ways.

Children’s Bargain Town, Inc. was a chain of toy “superstores” founded in Chicago in 1957 by Larry Hochberg. Up to that point, toys were very frequently purchased by middle-income families at very small, family-owned toy stores or in variety stores such as Woolworth’s or Kresge’s. More well-to-do clientele would shop at the toy departments of the large department stores of the day, and then of course there was Sears and their legendary Wish Book. Over time, the superstore concept would come to dominate toy retailing, at least until Wal-Mart’s juggernaut in the 1990’s.

In 1969, Hochberg, whose company had grown to 8 Chicago area stores, sold Children’s Bargain Town to Interstate Stores, Inc. who had bought out another toy chain two years earlier. Hochberg, after staying on with Interstate for a very brief period, would go on to start up Sportmart, a Chicago-based sporting goods superstore chain. Interstate Stores, led by Sol Cantor, was the parent company of two prominent discount chains, Topps Discount City, whose stores were primarily in the eastern and Midwestern states and White Front stores, a west coast operation. Interstate also had a smattering of older traditional department stores, mostly in the east. Cantor was eager to replicate Interstate’s discounting success in the toy realm, and had set a goal for Interstate to operate 100 toy superstores within the following three to four years.

Interstate’s “other” toy chain was the similarly named Children’s Supermart, Inc., which they bought out in January 1967, when it had four Washington, DC area stores that went by the name of “Toys “R” Us”. Founded in Washington DC by Charles Lazarus in 1948, the first store bearing the Toys “R” Us name was opened in Rockville, Maryland in 1957. Lazarus stayed on to run the Toys “R“Us operation after the Interstate buyout.

By 1970, when the photos above were taken, Interstate was expanding their operations aggressively, and the toy division (which they continued to operate under the two separate nameplates) was no exception, more than doubling in size. At that time (’70), they had 11 Toys “R” Us units in the DC area, Baltimore, and the newly entered Los Angeles market. That year also saw 10 Bargain Towns in the Chicago, Milwaukee and Detroit areas.

The expansion drive that proved to be beneficial for the toy store divisions turned out to be disastrous for Interstate’s discount stores, Topps (in particular) and White Front. A combination of factors - the overexpanded condition of those chains, hit and miss merchandising, the wobbly early 70’s economy and the overwhelming competitive presence of Kmart in their key markets forced Interstate into bankruptcy in May 1974.

It became clear that the toy division was the only remaining star in the Interstate galaxy, so the decision was made to move forward under one banner, Toys “R” Us. An advertising campaign was launched to announce the renaming of the Children’s Bargain Town stores. Soon, we Chicago kids would learn the new mantra – “Bargain Town! Bargain Town! Bargain Town! is now Toys “R” Us! Toys “R” Us! Toys “R” Us!”, and Geoffrey the giraffe made his first Chicago appearances. For some years before and after the name change, Toys “R” Us used “the Children’s Bargain Town” as a tagline in their ads, and in many instances the slogan appeared on a small sign above the stores’ entrances.

Interstate’s discount divisions were scrapped altogether, and in July 1976 Charles Lazarus, Toys “R” Us founder was named president and CEO of the entire company. In April 1978, Interstate emerged from bankruptcy a very different company, with great prospects for future success that would be realized in the decades ahead. At this same time, the company (appropriately enough) was renamed Toys “R” Us, Inc.

A few more notes on the photos – on the Bargain Town photo, a Kentucky Fried Chicken store is visible in the distance, and what I believe may be a Shakey’s Pizza sign is peeking from behind the toy store’s signpost (it would probably take forensics to verify this). The second photo show the famed 70’s -80’s Toys “R” Us quasi-mansard prototype in one of its earliest examples. The third photo (below) features pool tables, pedal cars, wagons, trikes and good old Murray tractors (I had a Murrray bike!) from one of the two chains, don’t know which. As said, these photos are from 1970. The last item is a full-page Christmas ad from 1971 that appeared in the Washington Post. Just seeing the names of the toy companies makes me nostalgic – Gilbert, Skilcraft, Kenner and the rest which have long since disappeared with the consolidation of the industry. Add to that late, great group Marx, Schaper, Mego, Buddy L, Ideal…the list goes on and on.


31 comments:

  1. Great post! Very informative. That is a Shakey's sign in the distance (you can tell by the shape and color).

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  2. Any idea where that Bargain Town in the photo was located, Dave?

    That Toys R Us prototype reminds me of an old location in Ohio's Euclid Square Mall that had a similar if not the same look to it. There is a photo of a recent pic of it floating on the net as it sits abandoned.

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    1. This Bargain Town should be the one on 159th street in Calumet City, IL.

      Shakey's in the back ground, same building, parking lot!

      Dave S (different Dave)

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  3. Super post, boy you always inform us with your great knowledge! As 6 year old in 1971 I just assumed Toys R Us had always there, I didn't realize it was new. Hey I had a Murray Bike too! I had the Kenner Chip-away set too! Fun post, thanks!

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  4. Where were these photos taken?

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  5. Excellent post, amazing pictures.

    I'm from the Caldor Rainbow and I've done extensive research on these "classic" Toys R Us stores -- that photo of Toys R Us is truly incredible.

    I've got more on these older stores with the rainbow-striped motif.

    The Catonsville, MD is still there but it has the rainbow-striped look as well as a weird glass tunnel on the building front. I had no idea it was there in 1971!

    didi: The Euclid, Ohio one which was built in 1985, closed in 2002 is still there albeit vacant. It was recently used for an outlet of sorts.

    The particular "mansard" style seen in that picture exists in the form of a vacant one in Garden Grove/Anaheim, CA. You'd be amazed at how many variants the company released over the 70s and 80s (1989 was the last recorded year of the brown roof/rainbow style).

    Again, outstanding pictures as always (would love to have that vibrant storefront shot as a print!).

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  6. I guess the Children's Bargain Town is a Calumet City, IL location!

    I even once saw an old newspaper ad from 1970 for a grand opening of a Children's Bargain Town in New York State's Long Island area.

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  7. I would have to agree that this is the Calumet City location. If you look into the distance you can also see the roof of a Kentucky Fried Chicken (to the right of the Shakey's sign).

    The store was on 159th St, about one mile east of River Oaks. Toys R Us moved to the Landings shopping center on Torrance Ave, just south of the mall, in the late 80s. This store closed in the last year or so.

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  8. Pat - Thanks! Guess we won't ned forensics after all. A lot of us fondly remember Shakey's.

    Didi- Is that on the "Dead Euclid" site?

    Tim - Thanks, and I got the Chip Away set for Christmas that very year, 1971. Should've mentioned it in the post. The statue was kind of goofy looking (I don't really even remember what it was) but it was great fun!

    Mike - I didn't know the locations on these, but several folks (see below) have identified the Bargain Town as being in Calumet City.

    Nick - Thanks, and you've got some great stuff on TRU on your site! It's amazing how long that basic style endured. As far as a print goes, I'm afraid the photo as it appears on the site is about the best resolution I've got.

    Anonymous - Thanks! Love to see that ad.

    Will - Thanks so much for that detailed info on the Calumet City store!

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  9. Yep that was it. Although if you do an image search for Toys R Us a lot of great pics pop up.

    http://i18.photobucket.com/albums/b111/chameleon667/Dead%20Euclid/toysrussale2.jpg

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  10. I'll have to check it out, Didi. thanks.

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  11. I love the way Toys R Us played around with the phone numbers at the bottom of the ad, with prefixes like TAffy, SUper, HAppiness, GLeeful...no way those were real, and I'm guessing that the DC area wasn't using those old letter-number combos by 1971.

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  12. Anonymous - Thanks for spotting that. I totally missed it. Very charming!

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  13. Aw, this is cool I love both of them Children's Bargain Town USA for it's big huge sign and simple uncluttered building style :D and Toys R Us for it's colorful uniqueness and unusual building style

    :D

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  14. Mark - I agree they are both great. The Bargain Town "striped" look was fairly common among retail stores of the era. The Toys R Us mansard style was used for years, but to me looked most interesting in its original form, as pictured here. Thanks!

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  15. We had the Bargain Town/Toy "R" Us switchout here on the East Coast as well. I grew up in Ridgewood Jersey, next door to retail-happy Paramus. I remember the phrase as "Bargain Town Bargain Town Bargain Town has changed its name to Toys "R" Us Toys "R" Us Toys "R" Us!!!" And that log of the guy with the Uncle Sam is sure familiar!

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  16. Scott - Thanks for sharing that. no doubt that commercial really stuck for those of us who saw it as kids! And I agree Paramus is classic retail-land.

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  17. Ah, yes! I remember Bargain Town well (along with Ray Rayner, and let's not forget Garfield Goose and Bozo). My grandparents lived in an apartment behind Winston Park Plaza in Melrose Park, IL and they would take us to the nearby Melrose Park Bargain Town In fact, we knew we were getting close to the Grandma's & Grandpa's when we saw the Bargain Town sign.

    Thanks for the memories.

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  18. Mike CS - Garfield and Bozo live on in my heart as well, and the Bargain Town commercials certainly ran during those shows also. And I remember Winston Park from my junior college days - I used to shop at the Madigans store there in the early 80's (checking out the Members Only jackets, I'm sure). Winston Park had definitely seen better days by that time, and I remember thinking it had to be pretty cool in its heyday. Thanks!

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  19. I was an employee of Toys R Us from 1975 to 1985. During that time, BargainTown managers were changing over the "new" Toys R Us stores. Those god awful stores in the inner city, such as Commercial Ave, were nightmares. Burbank, was the first TRU store in the area with the long necked Geoffrey on the mansard. Cal City was converted soon after if my memory serves me correct.

    Many stories about the Topps/White Front fiasco spread around. But in the end, TRU survived, and I got stock when it opened. It was amazing to watch it grow from the ashes of Interstate.

    At that point, Charles Lazarus was heavily into standardization, and the use of computers for tracking inventory. It was rumored that during store tours, he would ask to be blindfolded, and walked into a store, making a set pattern of turns and steps, and expect his hand to land on exactly the item that was supposed to be there.

    It's NCR 280 cash registers could, in same time, track sales and inventory (most times, data was transmitted over night, it was really not live all the time). Amazing since today, many retailers still do not have that ability. They used their own system of code bars on sales tickets, and later converted to OCR.

    Great memories, thanks.

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  20. Anonymous - Thanks so much for that great input! I wasn't sure as to whether the old striped Bargain Towns were converted to the TRU mansard look. And the anecdote about Mr. Lazarus is fascinating! Glad this brought back some memories for you!

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  21. It seems to me they advertiseda lot on "BJ And the Dirty Dragon" too.. I can remember as a kid trying every Christmas to win that shopping spree where you had like 5 minutes to fill a shopping cart with as many toys as you could.. Those were the days.. :)

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  22. I remember Bargain Town as a staple of my childhood. I couldn't wait for my birthday to roll around because it meant my parents would let me pick out a GI Joe or Major Matt Mason playset that I wanted. I cherish those memories. The SW Chicago store was located at 6333 S Cicero Ave. (south east corner of Chicago's Midway Airport) In fact the original building still exists and looked similar to the photo of one posted. Today it is the home of Continental Sales/Lots for Less, a surplus and closeout retailer which I frequent monthly... -MCM

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  23. We used to go to the Bargain Town near Midway airport. Every birthday, my Dad would take us there and we could pick one thing. It was amazing. Great memories. Thanks for the article.

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  24. It was really Larry Hochberg's father, Joseph Hochberg, who had the primary role in founding Bargain Town in the 1950's. Larry went on found Sportmart some twenty years later.

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  25. Anonymous - Thanks for that clarification about Mr. Hochberg.

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  26. My father worked for Dixie Bedding in Chicago, IL on Milwaukee Ave (NW side of city) when Mr. Hochberg and Mr. Berg owned it. They changed it to Bargain Town in the late 50's and also opened another store in Waukegan. Some years later the stores changed to Toys R Us.

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  27. I grew up in the Roseland neighborhood of Chicago, near 119th and Halsted, and very fondly remember a Bargain Town near my home, though I'm not certain of the exact store address. Along with the Toys R Us that it later became it was a rare treat when we got to prowl the aisles getting ideas for our wish lists. Thanks for bringing up some treasured memories!

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  28. i remember the store across from midway airport and the one on milwakee road it had a basement like the one in south chicago. the bike were down there. the one on milwakee road had a white castle across the street so did cicero ave i were to a lot of them there was one on lincoln ave too up north i think there was one in waugeun too. my dad was a traveling salesman we drove all over chicagoland and subs

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  29. i remember the store on Milwaukee Ave (NW side of city)2013 milwakee ave across the street at 2001 was white castle just like the store on cicero ave the in side you can see some of the old frame and tell where the office was there was a store on lincoln ave too the south chicago store had a basement just like the one on Milwaukee Ave . they kept the bike down there picked out my first bike there.i remember the Winston Park Plaza store too in Melrose Park, IL my dad was a travling picture frame salesman we went all over chicago and burbs too

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  30. The Bargain Town TV ads are part of my family lore. I would always say "Pumpkin Pumpkin Say" and no one in my family had any clue what I meant until one day at a Xmas party I think (yes, in the front-room), the ad came on TV and I pointed at it and said "Pumpkin Pumpkin Say" and everyone finally knew what I meant and had a good chuckle over it for years and I would get kidded and reminded about that. Very cool blog.

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