FAO Schwarz's toy soldiers are no match for Manhattan's sky-high rents

Talk about rubbing salt into a wound.

A month after toy lovers got word that FAO Schwarz would be closing its famous toy store here — yes, the same store where actors Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia played "Chopsticks" on the giant floor piano in the movie "Big" — came word that Apple would move into the vacated palace of childhood dreams.


FAO Schwarz: A July 5 article in Section A on the pending closure of the Manhattan FAO Schwarz toy store said the rent on ground-floor units in New York's upper Fifth Avenue area averages $3,683 per square foot a month. That is the average rent per square foot a year.

The Apple move will be temporary while its own lavish store next door on Fifth Avenue undergoes renovation, a spokeswoman said last month. The FAO Schwarz closure, though, is permanent, illustrating how New York City real estate prices bend for no one, not even the country's oldest and most beloved toy store.

With that in mind, the costumed toy soldiers stationed outside FAO Schwarz's front doors have been especially busy lately, greeting locals lamenting that they waited so long to visit and tourists grateful that they got here before July 15. That is the day the giant piano will fall silent, the thousands of stuffed animals will cease to gaze upon wide-eyed shoppers, and the swaddled baby dolls will be removed from their glass cases and packed into boxes.

"It's the day when childhood ends," Judith Chapman said wistfully as she stood on the busy plaza outside the main entrance after ducking inside briefly to pick up some candy for herself. Chapman, who lives in New York, remembered visiting FAO Schwarz as a child, back when she found the realistic baby dolls under glass more cute than creepy, and when you didn't risk public shaming by following a visit to the toy store with a ride on a horse-drawn carriage in nearby Central Park.

"Can't anything be just fun anymore?" she wondered aloud as the doors swung open to allow more last-minute toy shoppers, or mere toy gazers, into the store.

Toys R Us Inc., which operates FAO Schwarz, has told shoppers not to despair. It plans to reopen the store in another Manhattan spot as soon as it can find a reasonably priced place. (Cue the guffaws from anyone who has tried to find reasonable rent in Manhattan lately.)

"The company is completely committed to building on the legacy of the FAO Schwarz brand through a flagship store in New York City and unique merchandising offerings," a Toys R Us spokeswoman, Linda Connors, said in an email. "While the company plans to close the current Fifth Avenue location on July 15, we are actively searching for another location in midtown Manhattan."

Shocked shoppers, at least the ones old enough to have paid rent or applied for a home loan, don't seem convinced.

"Oh my gosh, I'm so glad I got here in time!" said Dana Lee, who seemed more excited than her son, Jason, as she maneuvered down an aisle of stuffed animals on a crowded Saturday afternoon. "Where else can you buy a stuffed lobster that isn't for eating?" the Minneapolis mother joked, pulling a bright-orange, impossibly soft toy crustacean from a shelf and waving it in front of her 8-month-old baby's eyes.

Where else indeed. It is just such unusual items, along with the more traditional Barbie dolls, baby dolls, Lego blocks, marbles, toy cars, stuffed bears and glitter makeup that for decades have made this store more than just a place to shop. It is also a place to come and stare at the elaborate displays: the giant toy animals lining the escalators, the cases full of colorful jelly beans, the shelves lined with every conceivable make of tiny toy car, and of course the piano splayed out for anyone to dance upon.

In the end, though, the mere admirers may have contributed to the store's struggles. Millions came to see it and to entertain kids cranky from being dragged around Manhattan's loud, crowded and decidedly non-kid-friendly streets, but not enough of them came to buy the big-ticket items needed to cover the rent.

"FAO is a landmark," said Jim Silver, editor in chief and chief executive of TTPM.com, a website devoted to all things toy-related.

In becoming such a landmark, however, FAO Schwarz became less of a moneymaking store, Silver said. Few shoppers go into the store and walk out with a $799.99, 54-inch stuffed bear, or a $1,198.98 telescope marked down from $1,499.99.

Instead, they opt for the smaller items that fetch $24.99 or less, or they grab some candy or just take selfies next to the giant piano and move on.

"There's some pricey stuff in there, but it's 1% of the purchases," Silver said. "Not even 1%."

"But it's extremely high rent in that neighborhood," said Silver, noting FAO Schwarz's many high-end neighbors. They include the Plaza Hotel across Fifth Avenue and stores such as Tiffany & Co., Cartier, Armani and Valentino.

"You go into Tiffany's, you're not walking out without spending at least $100 or $200, because you're not going to find anything under that," Silver said. "It's different when you're selling toys that cost $30, $50 or even $70. With that type of rent, it's almost impossible to break even."

According to Cushman & Wakefield, which tracks real estate trends, the upper Fifth Avenue area commands the nation's highest rents, with ground-floor units going for an average of $3,683 per square foot a year.

12:47 p.m.: An earlier version of this article said ground-floor units in the upper Fifth Avenue area go on average for $3,683 per square foot a month. They go on average for $3,683 per square foot a year.

In addition to rising rents, toy tastes have changed, and so have shopping habits. There's a lot of overhead to operate a bricks-and-mortar store when you're competing against Amazon.com. And although traditional toys remain popular, children nowadays expect some sophistication to their playthings, for instance to make them compatible with the Apple gadgets they buy at the glassy, always buzzing Apple store nearby.

Once children get beyond the toddler stage, it's not as easy to interest them in a polyester calico cat that doesn't meow on command.

The crowd inside FAO Schwarz recently underscored the shop's issues. There were plenty of adults without children, pointing cameras at themselves to document their presence in the famous store. For them, it was a tourist attraction, just one stop along with Times Square, the Staten Island Ferry and the Empire State Building.

When the store closes, New York City will be without an FAO Schwarz for the first time since 1870, when founder Frederick August Otto Schwarz opened Schwarz Toy Bazaar. Over time, Schwarz added his initials, FAO, to the store's name. It has been at its current location, in the General Motors Building, since 1986.

The announcement of the store's closure prompted someone to launch a "Save FAO Schwarz" page on Facebook in May. It attracted little attention, perhaps because lovers of the toy store were actually visiting it rather than commenting on it online. One person, though, did post words next to a link announcing news of the closure.

They read simply: "I feel like crying."


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