Once upon a time there was an iconic famous toy store called FAO or FAO Schwarz. FAO Schwarz, has a fascinating and rich history as the oldest toy store in the entire United States. For many years it was one of the places to visit when in New York. Or if you were lucky enough to have a smaller store near you.
Although FAO originally began in Baltimore in 1862 in the midst of the Civil War, then named “Schwarz Toy Bazaar”. German founder Frederick August Otto Schwarz, (from which the initials F.A.O. eventually came), opened a location in New York City.
FAO Schwarz the early years
In 1870 the store found its new home on Broadway. And quickly garnered fame as a vendor of fine imported European toys and dolls.
The store was run by Frederick and his 3 brothers.
The Broadway location would be only the first of many various addresses within New York. In 1880 the store moved to 42 E. 14th Street, right in the heart of Union Square facing the park. Until April of 1897 when it changed to 39 and 41 W. 23rd Street, taking up two storefronts.
By this point, FAO Schwarz was already known as the largest toy dealer in the city. And who knows likely even in the whole world.
In 1931, FAO Schwarz moved residences to what would become its most famous location. Here it would stay for the next 55 years at 745 5th Avenue. It was positioned within New York’s most esteemed and high-end shopping district, and inside an Art Deco skyscraper. The store included a grand marble staircase, a slide that stretched from the first floor to the ground floor.
The Schwarz family owned and managed the store until the 1960s. After this point members of the younger generation seemed to lose interest. The company changed hands several times after that; first to Parents magazine, then to W.R. Grace, Morse Partners Ltd., Netherlands-based Royal Vendex, among several others. Finally ending with an acquisition from Toys “R” Us in 2009.
Under the control of Morse Partners Ltd. The store was moved again to a different location on 5th Avenue- 767 5th Avenue and 58th Street. In the General Motors Building. It is a real shame as at one point FAO Schwarz claimed 40 different store locations all over the U.S.
What is FAO Schwarz Known For?
The store became especially renowned as the Toy Store to check at Christmas time. When it held annual exhibitions showcasing all the new toys that would be available for that upcoming Christmas season.
Schwarz is believed to have been the very first to premiere a live Santa Claus at his store in 1875. Of course not to be out played stores like Macy’s quickly followed suit. In 1896 Schwarz declared his store to be the “Original Santa Claus Headquarters”.
FAO Schwarz toy displays were legendary, boasting working model train sets, extravagant dolls, and stuffed animals with real fur. At Christmas time especially city strollers would gaze at the remarkable window displays full of color and toy goodness.
The toy store also debuted a catalogue first issued in 1876, which helped to attract an even wider consumer base.
FAO In the Movies
Its flagship store in New York became a must-see on any tourist trip. With millions passing through the doors from all over the world to make a stop at the illustrious toy seller. Posing with the uniformed toy soldiers and greeters. Other well-known treats to visit and interact with were larger-than-life stuffed animals. A toy car large enough for a child to sit in. And of course the famed giant piano, able to be played by dancing and jumping across its keys.
This is known as “The Walking Piano,” made recognisable and iconic by the 1988 movie “Big”. With the amazing Tom Hanks. In 1986 the store installed a clock tower with a cartoon-like face, which also became iconic as well. This welcomed customers into the entrance until 2004.
Bringing History to Life
In 2012 FAO Schwarz held a big anniversary celebration, commemorating 150 years of toys. The iconic clock tower was placed in its usual spot singing “Welcome to Our World of Toys”. And toy soldiers once again greeted incomers, lining the entire grand hall as people entered.
On display were original or older versions of toys dating all the way back to the early 1900s. These included the original Barbie and Ken dolls Hot Wheels cars. And a prototype of an Etch-A-Sketch, and first editions of games such as Candy Land and Sorry!
Visitors were also able to view pieces of FAO Schwarz history. Such an as old sales ledger from 1909 and a few copies of early store catalogs. Many of the old toys on display came directly from the manufacturers, still dressed and complete in the original packaging.
It was certainly a walk through toy history, and drew excited crowds ranging from toy connoisseurs to average consumers.
Did FAO Schwarz Shut Down?
Fortunes turned however in 2003 when the company had to declare bankruptcy twice within the same year. It pulled through, but all of the outside locations elsewhere in the U.S. were shuttered.
Leaving the New York store being the only one to remain.
It flourished until 2015, when rent prices in New York proved too challenging for many large businesses. FAO Schwarz being one of them. Toys “R” Us, the owner at the time, had itself several crippling problems, eventually closing down all of their stores.
After 153 years of selling incredible and extravagant toys, FAO Schwarz closed its doors at the New York store.
FAO Schwarz Reimagined
The latest chapter of FAO Schwarz began with the buying of the toy brand by the ThreeSixty group. And the reopening of the store in New York in 2018, this time located at Rockefeller Center.
ThreeSixty is trying to bring FAO back but in different ways; around the country the FAO Schwarz brand toys will be sold in mini stores within other larger stores. Rather than maintaining their own exclusive residences.
The new flagship store in New York, attempts to recapture the experience of the original toy store once again. I have seen they have continued this concept in other cities including London. By occupying space (22,000 sq feet) within the Selfridges store on Londons Oxford Street.
They hope to bank on the nostalgia factor for regaining the success lost before with Toys “R” Us. Icons like the giant piano and clock tower have returned. Alongside other enticing entities have been installed.
These included a build-your-own race car section, live magic shows, adoption agency “interviews” for children buying dolls. Huge life-size rocket ships holding barrels’ worth of candy.
Future of FAO and Memories
Where the store will go from here remains to be seen. FAO Schwarz has surely marked its spot in history. As one of the most epic sellers of toys in the world. We hope they can continue for another 150+ years and incorporate digital and online into their stores. Kids of today need to enjoy and learn from toys that are not just screens and video based.
Personal fond memories for me like many a visit to FAO was a must. On the list of must see sights for my first time to New York. I first visited around 2007. And remember the smell of the sweet section. And time spent walking around the large range of Toy Story, Spiderman and other brands and demonstrations everywhere.
Everything you could want in a toy store was included. With a huge area devoted to Lego and stuffed toys especially. The giant Piano was of course a must see. And the views over the nearby streets, by looking out from one of the corners was a memorable moment. Especially if you are experiencing the unique NYC or a busy city for the first time.
I would liken this store to my memories of ToysRUs in New York. However I found the FAO store much more enjoyable and less loud.