Standing in front of the large glass-fronted building at the south end of Central Park, I couldn’t say it looked much like a toy store. No bright colors or cartoon animal mascots adorned its façade. Even the name of the store above the entryway made it seem more like a bank or investment firm. However, it did have an enthusiastic doorman dressed like a toy soldier. I assumed he was under its employ, anyway. Otherwise I take back my high-five.
But FAO Schwartz was always the upscale toy store chain, appearing in only the more posh malls that would rather go under than lease space to a KB Toys (RIP, good friend).
It does have a pretty auspicious history, though. For a toy store.
It was started in Baltimore in 1862 by a German immigrant named Frederick August Otto Schwarz. Back then it was called Toy Bazaar. The New York City location opened up eight years later, where it moved a few locations and changed names before finally settling on its current appellation and then on Fifth Avenue in 1931. It moved up the street and across 58th Street to its present site in 1986.
It wasn’t my first visit to this particular bit of Manhattan. I’d been there seven or eight years ago. It was in December, the happiest month to visit a toy store. I remembered the place being quite the spectacle.
I mean, it wasn’t anywhere close to the experience that its counterpart Toys R Us Times Square is, with its life-sized moving Jurassic Park T-Rex and indoor Ferris wheel, but still, lots of people looking at lots of cool things and wishing they could pull a reverse Big in order to enjoy them without shame.
Not so much this time. Again, January, I’m assuming. The month that’s cool for exactly one day.
Inside, the store has three levels. The basement is preschool stuff, the ground floor is the candy (FAO Schweetz) and the signature high-quality-and-priced stuffed animals that they’re known for. The top floor is the bulk of the toys. The layout hadn’t much changed since my visit. They seemed to have fewer of the high-end stuffed animals, and they’d installed a build-your-own Muppet niche.
So the top floor was where we spent most of our time, highlights of which included the Lego room, complete with large figural Lego sculptures, photo ops (for a price) with Iron Man and Spider-Man, and a whole line of Richard Pryors. No Spaceballs toys, though.
And, of course, there was the Big piano.
You knew that earlier Big reference wasn’t random.
Today, the FAO Schwarz flagship store is less famous for making the birthdays of rich kids better and more famous for being the site of the scene in the 1988 movie Big where Tom Hanks dances Heart and Soul and Chopsticks with Robert Loggia on a giant, floor-mat piano.
And it’s still there. Kind of.
But first let me interject that I think the scene was filmed in the pre-1986 FAO Schwartz location, which is now a clothing store. My conscience is clear. Let’s move on.
Anyway, a giant floor-mat piano is, in fact, on the third floor, but I’m pretty sure it’s not the original.
First, they don’t really push that it’s from the movie, not on site or on website. No plaques or signs or picture of Tom Hanks blowing silly string out his nose. Sure, they call it the Big Piano, but they seem to be using “big” in a suspiciously generic way. Also, according to this news blurb, the real floor piano from the movie was donated in 2009 to the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia by a private collector who’d picked it up after the movie debuted.
Plus, they actually sell those pianos for thousands of dollars, so a replacement would be no problem.
By the way, they do the same thing with a Zoltar fortune telling machine on the ground floor. It’s obviously a Big reference, but they don’t really come out and say that.
And what bottom-line-driven company has ever been subtle?
This’ll be one of those articles I edit without telling anyone if somebody is able to educate me on the whole matter.
Also, I’d be remiss as an analytics-driven website if I didn’t mention that is not the only Big shooting locale I’ve ever been to. The first can be found here. You'll have to scroll down a little bit.
One of the good sides to visiting in a down month is that you can get easy access to the piano without having to wait in line or sharing a chord with thirty thousand kids. Unfortunately, the lighted keys were stuck and the music seemed only sporadically triggered by stepping on the keys. The thing was definitely old and well-trodden upon and could at least have been a contemporary of the famous Big piano. Maybe this one just got passed over for stardom at the casting session because it had moral lines it wouldn’t cross.
As a result, it was basically an opportunity for kids to slide around in their socks and FAO Schwarz to sell pictures of them doing so.
So I’ve been calling the place the flagship store throughout this article, but the truth is, thanks to a series of bankruptcies earlier this century, it’s the only FAO Schwartz left on the planet. And it’s operated by Toys R Us.
So we’re getting close to living in a world without toy stores, and when that happens, every month will be the saddest.
Posts about toy stores shouldn’t end this morosely, so please scroll through the remaining pictures and then watch the video at the end before you move on to more interesting websites: