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FAO Schwarz closing, but its magic lives on in my memory

I'll never forget the magic going to the FAO Schwarz toy store as a kid with my dad, never buying anything, and walking out thrilled.
/ Source: TODAY

The FAO Schwarz closing means today is the last day you can play on their giant floor mat piano.

The iconic toy store, and the oldest in the U.S, is closing its flagship store doors at the GM building on 745 Fifth Avenue, after a 145-year run.

The company announced back in May that it was closing up shop, alluding to rising rents as the main reason. Considering its neighbors are Apple’s flagship NYC store, the Plaza Hotel, and Central Park, it isn’t exactly surprising that rent has become unmanageable, nor is it a shocker that FAO Schwarz, which had previously shut down all 40 of its other stores across the country, is closing its doors for now while it searches for a new, cheaper, space.

Christopher Bensch, Vice President of Collections and Chief Curator at The Strong Museum in Rochester, NY, which has one of the largest historical collections related to play concurs, said the store's shuttering symbolizes the overall shift towards online.

There, cheapest price wins, which is good for shoppers, but free shipping isn't everything.

“Lost in the mix is the experience of entering a magical physical space like the FAO Schwarz store and the thrill of discovery,” said Bensch, “the dazzling displays, the alluring demonstrations, the surprising variations on classic playthings.”

I couldn't agree more. If you were ever a kid in FAO Schwarz, as I once was, then perhaps this news warranted a startled gasp for you, too.

I grew up in L.A, but my Dad was from New York and he often returned there for business and sometimes would take me along when I was a little girl. After walking through Central Park, eating extra-salty vendor pretzels, my dad would give a most distinct half-smirk indicating that we could go to FAO Schwarz.

Mind you, this did not mean we could buy anything, in fact, I, like so many adults I know who went to FAO Schwarz as kids, seldom actually left the store with a product.

Perhaps this is part of what led to the store’s downfall, enjoying the FAO Schwarz experience didn't require buying anything.

And what an experience it was! Walking through the tall glass doors ignited a sense of awe and wonder. The smaller you were, the better. That made the surrounding life-sized stuffed animals only more enormous. All the other toy stores I’d been to occupied one floor, or one part of a floor at maximum. But FAO Schwarz had its own elevator. Here, there were stories of toys, and just about any toy you could imagine. It was as though it was created by Willy Wonka himself, it was so vast, ingenious, and totally focused on a child’s joy.

My dad kept an eye on me, but I was more or less set free to roam the store as I pleased. It didn’t matter that I had no siblings or friends with me, as I quickly connected with other kids who were also exploring on their own. We pretended to gallop on stuffed ponies, made forts out of Legos, and of course, gave the famous floor mat piano, which I recognized from one of my favorite movies, “Big,” a clumsy try, falling over each others' legs as we attempted what, it turns out, is a fairly tricky choreography.

I recall on one visit in the early nineties, pining after a giant stuffed cheetah that was so big I could safely sit on it. I asked my father if he would buy it for me and he promptly inspected the price tag. It was $900. I remember my eyes popping and the number burning into my brain, which was already experiencing sensory overload. I knew even then that $900 was an absurd price for a stuffed animal, and yet at the same time I felt that the craftsmanship of the toy was so beautiful that it was worth every penny.

I didn’t get the cheetah. Instead I received some candy and a sensible lecture reminding me of the value of money and the excessive amount of toys I had at home.

I haven’t been back to FAO Schwarz since I was with my Dad as a child, and until today, it never occurred to me that I won’t be able to some day take my own children there and let them play with all the toys I probably won’t buy them.