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.