FAO Schwarz Welcomes Target to Its World
A trip to FAO Schwarz’s vibrant, fantasy-inducing Fifth Avenue store was pure intoxication. The thrill was just as great when I was an adult (when the store became “FAO” to me) as when I was a child. Indeed, I became a child again when I walked through its doors.
Growing up, a gift box from FAO Schwarz created agonizing anticipation that mercifully lasted only as long as it took to tear off the wrapping. Was it the red-velvet kangaroo (complete with a baby kanga in her pouch) that I had wanted with all my heart? Was it Candy Land, a board game that seemed like a portal to a world almost as magical as FAO Schwarz itself?
Generations of children – and adults – knew that holidays and birthdays were made all the more special when they were celebrated courtesy of the iconic toy store.
So what do you do if you’re FAO Schwarz to celebrate your own birthday – your 160th? You throw yourself a giant party at your flagship Rockefeller Center location – attended by no less a presence than FAO Schwarz III – and you gear up for the holiday season by entering into an exclusive, multiyear partnership with Target. The pact calls for all Target toy departments to have dedicated displays of some 120 FAO Schwarz-branded items, and for the FAO Schwarz-branded collection to be sold on Target.com.
While Target’s big-box presence greatly expands the physical footprint of FAO Schwarz, the Target-FAO Schwarz mashup may at first glance seem a little incongruous. Target traces its roots to 1962 as the discount division of Minneapolis’ Dayton Department Store. By contrast, FAO Schwarz, which for decades made its home on Manhattan’s prestigious Fifth Avenue, was known as a high-end specialty shop whose origins predate Target’s by a full century.
In fact, FAO Schwarz is the 6th-oldest retail chain in the United States, according to Retail Insight. (In terms of brick-and-mortar stores, it is No. 5, as Lord & Taylor is now online-only.) The chain, started by German immigrant Frederick August Otto Schwarz as a single store under the name Toy Bazaar, opened in Baltimore in 1862 – the second year of the Civil War.
HEART AND SOUL
Immortalized in the movie Big by Tom Hanks playing Heart and Soul on the floor’s outsized keyboard, the beloved retailer has faced numerous battles of its own. FAO Schwarz declared bankruptcy twice in 2003, in January and December.
It was with mixed feelings that I shopped the December bankruptcy sale. On one hand, I felt like the love child of Auntie Mame and Daddy Warbucks walking out of the store with bags full of stuffed animals. On the other, I was heartbroken that these heavily discounted treasures, destined for the company toy drive, signified the worst for my happy place.
The company’s fortunes went on a roller-coaster ride after the Schwarz family sold the majority of the business in 1963 to Parent’s Magazine Enterprises (which considered dropping the FAO Schwarz name). Subsequent owners have included conglomerate W.R. Grace, Swiss toy retailer Franz Carl Weber, and most notably former rival Toys ‘R’ Us (which itself declared bankruptcy in 2017).
Toy ‘R’ Us sold FAO Schwarz in 2016 to the Three Sixty Group, whose other well-known companies include Vornado and Sharper Image. However, the brand and trademark are the property of the Schwarz family and the Schwarz Family Foundation, established in 1990. Licensing fees paid to the Foundation fund fellowships that sponsor college graduates in 2-year stints with social-impact organizations.
YES, FREDERICK, THERE IS A SANTA CLAUS
FAO Schwarz is more than a story of survival and resurrection; it is also one of innovation. It was a mail-order pioneer; its catalog has been continuously published since 1876. And while Macy’s may be forever associated with the character of Santa Claus thanks to the movie Miracle on 34th Street, FAO Schwarz was the first store to feature an in-person Santa Claus, in 1875 – a practice now replicated at stores all over the world.
The company was rebranded in 2017 with the tagline “Return to Wonder.” But did the wonder ever leave? Not for me, and I’d venture the same is true for countless other FAO fans of all ages.
As FAO Schwarz III said at the store’s celebration on October 8th (coincidentally, his own birthday), “I turned 62 today, but I feel like I’m 23 and every time I come here, I feel like a little kid. And that’s what this store stands for. It stands for dreams. It stands for opportunity and play. And that’s a beautiful thing.”
Yes, Mr. Schwarz, it is a beautiful thing. Happy birthday to you and your world of wonder, from the children of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.