As I’ve already detailed at some length here, KB Toys had filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy and begun liquidating its inventory in preparation of going out of business after 80+ years. Around the country, stores are either in the process of closing or have ended operations permanently already.
For my wife and I, that end came today.
This isn’t a post to talk about the failings of KB Toys as a company — Lord knows, there were plenty enough of those to talk about at length. I’m sure someone reading this has had a bad experience at one of the company’s locations at some point and sheds no tears for the company’s downfall; I’m also certain that there are those who’ll point out the store’s inability to compete in price with Wal-Mart, or its struggles to provide the quantities of “hot” merchandise that might have made a difference between survival and collapse. Those points belong in an business magazine article. I’m here to talk about what the company meant to me and my wife, and why we both drove home today wiping away a tear.
I started working for the company back in the holiday season of 1997, catching on as an assistant manager of one of the chain’s Christmas-only stores. A good friend of mine had gotten the manager’s position of the store, and he had recruited me to run the store with him. At the time, I owned my own business (a comic book and collectible store), so I had enough flexibility with my schedule to take the 2nd job to help with paying bills. What I found was that working in a toy store was an experience like no other I’d ever had. Even though the store I was in didn’t carry much along the way of newer, sought-after toys, it still had it’s share of neat stuff come through the door — and let’s face it, anyone who has anything of a kid still left inside of them would get the same huge thrill I did every time I opened another case off the truck to see what had come in next.
The holiday went smoothly, and the next year I found myself with my friend as a seasonal assistant for the permanent KB Toys store in the same mall. Now I got a chance to see all of the hot items first hand (this was the first year of the Furby, if you can remember the fuss at the time), and while it was definitely harder work that the temporary location, it was more fun — and more rewarding an experience. In 1999, I got the opportunity to be the manager of the Christmas-only store — this time, working alongside my then-business partner (and current wife). We were a huge success, blowing away previous numbers for the location — and that success would lead to both of us being offered full-time management positions with the company.
Coincidentally, we were both desperately in need of a job at the time. The business we had owned had gone belly-up earlier in the spring, and we were fighting to drive down the mountains of debt we’d run up in the process. We eagerly took on the challenge of working for KB Toys — and we quickly found out that we both loved it.
The KB stores themselves, based largely in indoor malls, weren’t huge like Toys R Us — and you never had much of a staff to work with, numbers-wise (when it wasn’t Christmas, even the busiest stores would run with only 8 or 9 people on staff total). But while the small staff meant that the workload was always heavy, even in the slow months, it meant that you really got to build up a rapport with the people you spent the days with. Employees and other managers became friends in many cases, a sort of extended family that you bonded with over store inventories or promotion changes or sales contests.
My wife and I worked together for about 6 months before she accepted a store manager position at another KB Toys nearby, and with both of us store managers, it was clear we had invested a lot in the company; in fact, it was my promotion that allowed us to realize our dream of owning our own home. But it wasn’t just a financial investement we had; rather, over time, like many of the other managers we came in contact with, we began to have a real emotional investment in the success and well-being of both our stores and the company in general. We didn’t own a stake like we had in our own business, but often, it felt like we did.
Somewhat burnt out on the world of retail, I left the company in 2004, shortly before the first bankruptcy filing that KB endured. We’d seen the warning signs already that something was amiss, but still, the announcement at the time was shocking. We knew that individual stores would close, but never had we thought that the company itself would be in jeopardy. Too many people had worked too hard for that to happen, right?
My wife would follow my lead to take on a management position with another company shortly afterward, looking for stability over familiarity — but for both of us in our new places, things just weren’t the same. Work never had felt more like just that — work. After years of actually looking forward to going into our jobs every day, we both found that getting ourselves motivated (beyond the impetus of a paycheck) was harder than it had ever been.
In time, my wife would work her way back to the company (after being recruited back with a hefty raise after KB’s emergence from bankruptcy in 2005), and she had never been happier than she was that first day she pulled her KB Toys polo shirt back over her head. Even I found my own way back, like an addict with a habit they couldn’t break; I worked as a seasonal associate last year, and served as a holiday stock manager for my wife’s store this past year. I was so proud of her and what she’d accomplished, as her store was not only one of the nicest I’d ever set foot it, it was setting sales records for its location, and I was glad to just be a part of it.
And just like that, it was all gone.
We cleaned the store out entirely today; my wife turned her keys into the mall manager and we drove way from the store for the last time. We did so with heavy hearts, knowing that sometimes the sum of a store isn’t just in the numbers recorded on its ledger — but it’s in the impact it makes on the people who called it their home away from home, in our cases, for nearly twenty years combined. There’s not much left for us to remember KB Toys with as it already begins to fade away from the public eye — a few pictures, a few mementos — but more than those, we’ll take away our memories of what the store meant to us and the people we worked with — and that alone will always probably bring that tear back to our eyes the next Christmas we see without it — and likely, all the ones that will ever follow.
Goodbye, KB. And thanks. You won’t be forgotten.