Of course you don’t, unless you grew up in the greater Cincinnati area. But don’t stop reading! Sure, this “Holy Crap! Remember…” is about my favorite local toy store from my childhood, but it’s also a tribute to every family-owned toy store that we all loved while we were growing up.
Johnny’s Toys was special in that it was a small hometown store that carried a lot of unique, hard-to-find toys and games that you couldn’t find at Toys ‘R’ Us or K.B. Toys. Although the quality and selection of toys was great, the thing that made Johnny’s Toys extra magical was the Birthday Castle. If you were in elementary school then you knew about the Johnny’s Toys Birthday Castle. When your birthday was coming up, you would hear a hundred times, “Did you get your key yet?” It was a big deal.
The key was a special gift from the store that was sent taped inside of a birthday card to Johnny’s Toys Birthday Club members. When you got to the store, you would show the card to one of the employees. They would lead you to a large castle nestled in the corner of the store. I’m sure that it’s not as impressive to you if you’ve never seen the Birthday Castle before, but for me, just looking at this picture makes me smile.
You would use your key to “unlock” the large, red wooden door. Thinking back, the door was never actually locked, and the key was just for show, but I don’t know of anyone who was brave enough to point that out, or to go into the castle without a key.
The inside of the castle wasn’t quite as magical as the outside. It was a small space with racks of red plastic bags. The racks were labeled “boy” and “girl”, and were numbered by age. The red plastic bags were opaque, and the rule was that you were supposed to just grab a bag from your assigned bin, no peeking. The toys were always cheap and were never nearly as exciting as getting the key and opening the door, but it was a free toy so it was hard to complain.
Sadly, stores like Toys ‘R’ Us began popping up in more convenient areas of town. My last visit to Johnny’s Toys was probably near my 12th birthday, which would have been the last year I got a key. Big-box toy stores had a larger selection of popular toys, and stores like Wal-Mart and Meijer began adding to their toy sections, making them a much more convenient and cheaper option for busy parents. Johnny’s Toys would often only get visited once a year to go to the Birthday Castle.
The threat of lower prices and convenience from competitors wasn’t the only problem. A few bad business decisions also doomed the store. In 2004, after already closing the established Milford location that I frequented as a child, management decided to open a large, FAO Schwartz-inspired store at the dying Cincinnati Mills mall. The move was a bust, and the store was quickly replaced by Steve & Barry’s. I remember driving down Lila Avenue in Milford years later, sometime around 2002, and seeing my store permanently closed, although the sign was still up. A few years after that, I saw that the sign was gone.
The only remaining Johnny’s Toys store is near the original store’s site in Covington, Kentucky, however, it’s no longer the toy store that it once was. The store had moved into a larger location in 2000 in order to expand its inventory, but the change never caught on. In the following years the store slowly morphed from a retail store to an “edutainment” center, and now no longer sells toys. In 2009, the last remaining Birthday Castle was closed and removed. A Facebook group dedicated to saving the last remaining castle still exists, and has many more personal stories of the Birthday Castle.
I realize that most Panels on Pages readers won’t know about Johnny’s Toys, so I want to know what awesome hometown toy stores you remember from your childhood. What made them special? Are they still around? What’s your favorite toy store memory?