FAO Schwarz is facing closure

Shoppers saddened in fabled toy store

December 04, 2003|By Randi F. Marshall | Randi F. Marshall,NEWSDAY

NEW YORK - When Gerry Horton was growing up on Long Island, he and his family made an annual pilgrimage into Manhattan during the holiday season. They'd walk down Fifth Avenue, stopping in many a shop and checking out Rockefeller Center. But one of the highlights would always be a stop at the FAO Schwarz flagship store on Fifth Avenue, Horton recalls.

"This was always part of the tradition of coming to New York City on Christmas," Horton said. "It's a part of what you think of when you think of New York."

This week, Horton and his wife, Kim, who live in Pennsylvania, rekindled the tradition, bringing their three children with them. Making the biggest impression on Andrew, age 8: FAO's robot elevator.

But the Hortons were saddened to learn that FAO's fabled store may have to shut its famous doors. On Tuesday, the company announced that it would be filing for bankruptcy this week.

Said Kim Horton: "It's a real shame."

The flagship store at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street is a destination for tourists and was immortalized in the movie Big, when Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia bounced out "Heart and Soul" on an electronic keyboard mat.

Few FAO shoppers in the store Tuesday had heard about the bankruptcy announcement, though some had known about Schwarz's previous troubles.

Despite the potential for bankruptcy or store closures, or the fierce wind gusts that whirled about the store's front entrance, the store was fairly busy as shoppers - mostly tourists - gathered at displays of Barbie dolls or teddy bears, and even stopped to take pictures with the famous bear sculpture outside the store.

Carol Lee's eyes widened as she learned that FAO may be shutting its stores.

"That's terrible," she said, noting that she often visited the store near her home in Baltimore (the now-closed branch in Towson Town Center). She and friend Mary Coomes had come to New York for a quick visit. Though both had been to FAO's flagship store before, they said they never tired of repeat visits.

"It's such a happy store," said Lee. "Hopefully, they'll work it out so they can stay open."

When he learned of FAO's pending bankruptcy and potential closure, Randy Reminger sighed.

"Well, at least I got to see it," the Lancaster, Pa., resident said with a small smile.

He and his wife, Robyn, were visiting New York for the day, leaving their children, ages 2 and 6, behind in Pennsylvania. But the stop at FAO wasn't complete without the purchase of a few gifts.

"It's a beautiful store," said Robyn Reminger. "It is somewhat surprising that they'd have to close it."

Other shoppers said shuttering of the flagship would be a fairy tale gone bad.

"I hope it stays open forever," said Tamara Weinberg, 9, from Woodmere, L.I.

"We love it. It's like a museum. They have all the collectibles you don't see anywhere else," Tamara's mom, Sharona Weinberg, said. "But it is pricey."

Bill Rainey, a California resident in town on a business trip, said he remembers watching Hanks and Loggia play the giant piano in Big.

"It sure beats Toys 'R' Us or Wal-Mart," he said, clutching a retro Thomas brand tank purchased for his daughter.

Frank Patalano and his wife, Nancy, have spent the last several years making an annual tradition of coming to FAO Schwarz from their home in East Providence, R.I., bringing their parents with them.

"We come to see the new toys every year," said Frank Patalano, a teacher. "There's nothing like FAO." Added Nancy: "That's usually the first thing we do."

By the time they left the store, they were armed with teddy bears and other toys. This year, they also checked out the new Toys 'R' Us in Times Square, but agreed that FAO Schwarz was superior - and has stood the test of time.

If it closes, the family agreed, nothing could replace it.

"It is a depressing story, because for many people, that image of FAO Schwarz is part of their holiday tradition," said Chris Byrne, editor of Toy Report and a contributing editor for Toy Wishes magazine in New York. "It is an entire holiday tradition that is going away, or at the very least, is being jeopardized and will change radically."

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Wire services contributed to this article.

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