The Great Divide, Now in the Toy Aisle
By Ginia Bellafante
Earlier this year, at the 109th Annual American International Toy Fair, held at the Javits Convention Center as one of the culture’s most convincing cases for childlessness, a former investment banker named Jill Todd displayed “The Tuneables,” an interactive DVD series she had created through her company, the Music Intelligence Project. The daughter of two musicologists, Ms. Todd developed the project in conjunction with her parents as an instructional system in melody, rhythm and tone — the fundamentals of music leveraged as a means to enhance cognitive function. Nearby, but easily obscured by the acres of primary-color plastic, was a booth for a company called Fat Brain Toys, whose games and puzzles in logic and sequencing came with an impressive lineage, some of them designed by the celebrated inventor Ivan Moscovich, a Holocaust survivor.
Walking into one of the three branches of Toys “R” Us now in the Bronx, you would find nothing from either of these ventures. Just as we are unlikely to unearth dilled artisanal long beans from the farms of northern Vermont, we are unlikely to find these sorts of diversions — small-batch toys aimed at the parent for whom it is never too early to begin LSAT drills — in large retail chains. Instead, they are the provenance of independent toy stores that maintain a presence almost exclusively in the city’s most affluent neighborhoods.
In the 1970s, the receipt of a Fisher Price farm set on Christmas Day would have conferred nothing terribly distinctive about class, having come from a department store and having appeared just as probably under the tree of a white-shoe lawyer as it would have under the tree of a brick layer. But toys, like lettuces or chocolate, have long since become another manifestation of difference. (And this is even before we arrive at an absurdity like the $1,499.99 Etch-a-Sketch encased in Swarovski crystals, currently at F. A. O. Schwarz, something that would appear to have been created as an engagement offering for an 8-year-old Trump to give a 6 ½-year-old Kardashian.)
What finds its way off the shelves of the chains is not what disappears from stores like Boomerang in TriBeCa, or Mary Arnold, the 81-year-old toy store on the Upper East Side. At those stores, the best-selling product of recent years has been something called Magna-Tiles, geometrically shaped magnetic tiles that allow children to imaginatively build virtually anything but what, in my experience, often turns out looking like the Crystal Cathedral in Southern California. Last Christmas, a flood near the factory where the tiles are made in Asia caused a shortage and a rise in price, with boxes of tiles, which usually retail for roughly $1 a tile, going for hundreds of dollars on eBay. By Dec. 12 last year, Ezra Ishayik, the owner of Mary Arnold, told me, he’d sold $20,000 worth of tiles and had run out.
Magna-Tiles are not sold at Toys “R” Us. Uninterested in sharing company with licensed products rendered in offensive colors, manufacturers like these resist the taint of the mass market, selling instead in museum gift shops and small, aesthetically palatable shops that draw from a narrow slice of our demographics. At the same time, as Sean McGowan, a toy industry analyst at the investment bank Needham & Company explained it, the market for educational toys is never quite as big as we would like it to be. While a company like Toys “R” Us carries educational toys, over time its commitment to promoting them has eroded, he said.
In many parts of the city, though, beyond Manhattan and the various precincts of brownstone Brooklyn, something like Toys “R” Us is really all that exists. As I learned when I phoned recently, Castle Hill Toys and Games in the Bronx, for instance, doesn’t consider itself much of a toy store at all anymore, having transitioned into a focus on bikes and bike repairs when Toys “R” Us came to be common in the borough.
In the way that we have considered food deserts — those parts of the city in which stores seem to stock primarily the food groups Doritos and Pepsi — we might begin to think, in essence, about toy deserts and the implications of a commercial system in which the least-privileged children are choked off from the recreations most explicitly geared toward creativity and achievement.
It was precisely with this notion in mind that Dawn Harris-Martine — a former New York City schoolteacher who sent two daughters to Hunter College Elementary School, and one of them on to Wharton — expanded her Harlem bookstore six years ago to include toys geared in obvious ways toward intellectual development. Called Grandma’s Place, it originated as a literacy center, with Ms. Harris-Martine teaching both parents and children to read. What she realized, she said, was that many parents didn’t know that play served as a major component of early learning. “As a parent, I had never bought a toy in a five-and-dime,” she said.
The obvious counterpoint to these arguments is that there is no clear proof that toys intended to bolster cognitive abilities actually do so. At the very least, though, they signal to a child a parental investment in ambition and accomplishment, in active absorption over passive observation. It would take a very expansive view of the iCarly Truth or Dare Bear to believe it might do the same thing.