Over the new year the town where I live in California experienced what so many others have in recent years. A beloved toy store, long treasured by children and adults, announced they were shutting their doors. The staff informed teary-eyed customers making their final purchases that it simply could not compete with the discounted online sales from a retail behemoth we have all at some point used. As I headed home that afternoon, I felt an overwhelming sense of dread. One of the few remaining non-chain toy stores that had served the community with fundraisers in support of the local schools, hired employees of all ages and abilities, and offered unique customer service, was now extinct.
Once news had spread of the store closing many left comments in online forums dismissing adults who felt as I did. Some claimed there is no need for shops who have no online presence. Still others spouted off about the time and gas wasted by driving to the store rather than purchasing items and having them delivered free to one's home. Yet, something far greater and more lasting in its impact has been lost. The interaction between young children as customers, and the sales staff to assist them, is something irreplaceable by purchasing through a screen. From my own childhood I recall being given money from my grandmother to spend on whatever toy I fancied. Wide eyed and brimming with delight I would ask the sales clerk to take some of the model horses off the shelf for me to examine. Lining them up on the bright red counter I inspected each one, asking how much they cost, working out in my head as best I could whether, with tax, I had enough or I would need to wait and save a little more money. The memory of a kind and patient sales clerk giving me time to decide which pony to buy remains with me to this day.
In light of what has happened in my community, I was elated when my agent in London sent me an article published in The Times showcasing how Heywood Hill, a prominent bookseller with a charming storefront in Mayfair, has surpassed expectations and shown growth in an industry notoriously unforgiving to all who work in it. (Read The Times Deputy Book Editor James Mariott's article here: https://bit.ly/35T2BSt). The story provides a great beacon of hope for shop owners and the patrons who support their businesses; if Heywood Hill have figured out a way, perhaps other shops can become innovative and thrive under such inhospitable conditions.
So then, I ask, what is wrong with having a sense of nostalgia in support of the dwindling offline retail industry? I can distinctly remember as a child being thrilled when I spotted the toy store's iconic red and white striped wrapping paper encasing a special gift. I am grateful that I have the happy childhood memories of time spent with parents and grandparents in the store. I am pleased that I could pass the tradition to my daughter, who shopped there with me. She, too, had interactions with salespeople who took the time to stoop down to her level and ask if she needed any help. I wonder if those who are so quick to dismiss the past as charmingly inefficient would have even recognized the courtesy expressed in such a simple and thoughtful human interaction. Even the smallest of gestures, when made with such deliberate consideration, can have a lasting impact that makes us more aware of, and sensitive to, the needs of those around us.
Wall mural overlooking the parking lot of Talbot's Toyland.