The name of the store is Toys R Us, but on this last Saturday before Christmas--among the final shopping days for toy-hunt-weary moms and dads across Southern California--the place could be called a few other choice names as well:
How about Stress Is Us? Or Procrastination Is Us? Or even Pandemonium Is Us?
Wide-eyed Nancy Radillo has seen it all. A manager at the chain's La Cienega Boulevard store in Los Angeles, she has seen customers wait patiently in line for hours for their children's new bicycles to be assembled. She has also witnessed fighting and name-calling in snaking checkout lines because someone suddenly stepped out to grab yet another toy.
And she has watched gift-laden shopping carts bumper-to-bumper, clogging aisles at one of the area's busiest toy stores as though it were the jam-packed Santa Monica Freeway on a not-so-freewheeling Friday night.
"The phone has been ringing off the hook--our number is busy morning, noon and night--with people calling about toys," she said with a sigh. "I can't even get through. If you thought you were going to call saying you'd be late for work, forget it."
Call them foot soldiers in the front-line trenches of the holiday toy wars: the quest for the perfect children's gift. They're stock clerks at a mega-toy palace.
On most days, they're cheerful. Many are knowledgeable. And they're often deft at handling the most joyless of holiday customers: the bug-eyed, grabby, angst-ridden, wait-till-the-last-minute toy buyer. And this year, the cruel old calendar has given shoppers one less weekend between Thanksgiving and New Year's to get their labors done.
The result: "It's crazy," said shopper Glenda Offor.
Come Christmas season, store manager Frank LaRocco more than doubles his staff of 60 regular clerks to handle the frenzied holiday rush.
And even then, he says, he doesn't have enough troops to locate hard-to-find toys and answer the endless questions.
This year's $64,000 question, of course, is what the heck happened to all the Tickle Me Elmo dolls? But there are others: How do I find that newfangled computer software where my daughter can design her own Barbie clothes? What's a Buzz Lightyear? And don't you sell games like Twister, Tiddly Winks or Hula Hoops anymore?
The La Cienega store opened its doors at 7 a.m. Saturday. And, even then, there were more than a dozen people waiting. Michelle Butler was among them, because she was a woman with other places to go, other people to see.
"I have an 8 a.m. hair appointment, I've got no time to wait in line," she said with a smile. "I've got two kids and I just started shopping. Out of my way, I'm a woman on the run!"
By noon, the aisles were flooded with lost-looking men in suits and construction gear, moms without makeup, young parents in sweats and T-shirts--all pushing carts helter-skelter, some eyeing scribbled gift lists with an anxious, worried-sick look.
Grandfather Bill Williams just shook his head when he saw the price on one computer game his grandson just had to have. "It gets harder every year for an old man like me," said the 55-year-old, who lives in South-Central Los Angeles.
"Kids watch too much TV. And they get bombarded with commercials. And everything they see, they want. I just may go back to basics and get that boy something simple."
What's a grandfather to do?
Well, if you're looking for some old-fashioned board games like Clue, Monopoly and Operation, better think twice: There's a run on some classic toys this year as well.
LaRocco, 42, with 25 years in the retail business, sympathizes with the toy-finding task parents are up against: Because when an 8-year-old boy writes on his list that he wants a Schwinn bicycle, no other brand will do.
"It creates a frustration and people start trampling each other," he said. "Parents know the gift has to be perfect. Substitutions are adequate at best. If they don't get it right, they know they'll just end up standing in the refund line come Dec. 26th."
Most parents don't have the luxury of shopping early: Inquiring young minds are quick to start looking in closets and under beds come late November. And so moms and dads wait. And they make not-always-so-nice acquaintances with other moms and dads in the toy store aisles.
For shopper Tammy Whittacker, it's been anything but jingle all the way.
"Everybody's rude," she said. "Let me tell you, if I get pushed one more time. . . ."
To get their work done, store managers have developed a new ploy: the undercover stocker. That's the clerk who sheds the name tag and dresses casually like other shoppers, so he or she can get some floor work done in the busiest hours.
"Otherwise," Radillo said, "it would be tough to get anything done sometimes."
Come midnight, when the door is locked and the aisles are finally empty, the night crew--call them LaRocco's little helpers--comes in to clean up cluttered shelves and, Humpty Dumpty-like, put the store back together again.
"But come morning," LaRocco said of his customers, "we know they'll be back."