For one thing, it's pronounced Schwarzzz. As in stores.Twenty-five of them, counting the one that opens today on Wisconsin Avenue, yet another spawn of the Great Mother of them all at Fifth Avenue and 58th Street: F.A.O. (as in Frederick August Otto, who founded the business 118 years ago) Schwarz. The toy store. As in: toy toy store.
For another . . . well, you have to understand about F.A.O. Schwarz, what it means, what it stands for. (And so few things stand for anything anymore, do they?)
Schwarz is to toys as Fortnum and Mason is to plum puddings; as S.S. Pierce (pronounced "purse") was to canned goods; as the late (alas) Abercrombie & Fitch was to pitch helmets.
F.A.O. Schwarz is not be confused with "Child World, Play World, Toys R Us, whatever they are," says Ian McDermott, senior buyer, standing amid the Kathe Cruse Dolls, the Madame Alexander dolls, the $1,200 stuffed animals by Steiff, Trupa and Aux Nations, and a $6,000 doll house (marked down from $15,000) on the main floor of the New York store.
There are two more floors featuring solid-brass steamrollers, soap-bubble mix with blower, playhouses, dump trucks a Prince Charles Jigsaw puzzle, a full line of electronic toys, even the revolting but wildly popular "Baby Alive" which Schwarz refuses to display but will provide on request.
"This is the Mecca, here. We're not affected by recession. People come from all over the world. This town is filled with South Americans now, followed by the Middle Easterners. They spend hundreds of dollars.They've all got to have the gimmick dolls."
"Yes," says McDermott, punctuating his phrasing with a series of small, subliminal flinches, "the ones that walk . . . talk . . . and have workable genitals." Unlike the Madame Alexander dolls, which do nothing whatsoever, just sit there in beautiful dresses looking pretty, doubtless an exemplar and inspiration to the good little rich girls who get them. Especially the $150 Scarlett O'Hara doll in a replica of the gown she made from the green Velvet curtains, thereby demonstrating what the courageous well-bred lady does in times of adversity, which is to say the virture known as "making do."
Anyhow: "We had a Saudi Arabian who walked in and spend $4,000, just like that. The last visiting royalty we had was, well, in the good old days . . . [McDermott lifts a hand to point to the Plaza Hotel, across Fifth Avenue in a whirl of pigeons, horsedrawn carriages, a windblown fountain.] The King of Morocco would stay at the Plaza and everything would be delivered to his room."
King Khaid recently bought a swing set, which he asked F.A.O. Schwarz to air mail to Jidda. "But it proved to be too much trouble, so we asked his agent here in New York to pick it up." They also sell the Saudis a lot of mini-cars. The mini-cars are powered by Briggs and Stratton gasoline engines, and come in models including Jeep, Model T, and Thunderbird.
And: "The cowboy revolvers are very popular with the overseas visitors, they love to take them back. Guns. Not popular with Americans, though." McDermott seems to muse on the attitudes of these foreigners about Americans. "Stooopeeed Americans," he says, mimicking some unnamed accent with a small smile.
Juan Carlos and Sophia of Spain shop here. Tom Snyder and Bill Cosby buy electric trains. (One set costs $12,000, and is cited as the most expensive item in the store, the cheapest being a 49-cent ball of kite string.) Marisa Berenson bought a puppet theater, Paul McCarney bought teddy bears, Bette Midler bought a Travel Scrabble set.
Now, F.A.O. Schwarz has come to Washington.
It came once before, for eight years ending in January 1957, when they blamed Washington's "shifting population" for keeping them from building up a steady clientele. But that was in the days of Washington B.B. -- for Before Bloomingdale's.
Washington as a retailer's town has traditionally been known as discount city, schlock alley; stuffier than Philadelphia, the joke had it, but not nearly as big-spending. Cartier and Valentino both tried to siphon off some of our recession-proof money, and failed.
But who needed them? Rank, in Washington, is dispensed with such conspicuous precision (the water carafe on the desk, the gavel in the hand, the stars on the collar) that conspicuous consumption has not been necessary. Money, here, was always something you went back home to spend.
Then Washington, in the '60s, got chic. It got the Kennedys. It was the first American city to exemplify the grime-free promise of post-industrial living, never having had any industry at all. Congressmen, lawyers, lobbyists and media correspondents stopped going back home.
We got French restaurants, Mercedes dealers, theaters art dealers, the real estate madness and, ultimately, Bloomingdale's which generated slightly more excitement than if we'd gotten, say, the Mona Lisa, Leonard Bernstein and Tiffany's rolled into one. Bloomindale's meant that we were the sort of people who went to . . . well, Bloomingdale's but also to Mazza Gallerie, on Wisconsin Avenue, to Neiman-Marcus. . .
"The kind of people who shop in our store all live here in Washington," regional sales manager Arnold Maggi said yesterday in the Mazza Gallerie store. He adds that while no store is recession-proof, "our customers will feel it less than the middle class or the lower middle class. We're not looking for the Toys R Us customers, but we're planning a very aggressive operation."
"It helps to have a Lord & Taylor's nearby," says Ian McDermott, who likes the neighborhood the new F.A.O. Schwarz is in: next to Neiman's, just around the corner from Loard & Taylor's, and down the road from Saks.
It's not three floors, it's not across from the Plaza, but "you'll recognize it as a Schwarz," says McDermott.
Actually, the uniqueness might not be apparent at first sight. The spring-summer catalogue, for instance, offers a plastic/inflatable/battery-powered/cartoon-character/glo-in-the-dark/ remote-control array of gadgets you wouldn't be suprised to see sliding down the checkout counter at Valu-Mart.
Well, maybe not the Sea Horse model sailboast only 18 inches long, but equipped with mahogany decks and brass fittings, and priced up to $32. Or the 21-inche priate ship at $56.95. Or the toy farm -- little cows, tractor, etc. -- at $24.95.
"We're known for being pricey," McDermott says.
But it's more than that, he says. "We have unique toys. Half of our stock is imported. We avoid fads, like the Cher doll and TV toys -- the ones which are so heavily advertised. TV toys generally are so highly visble in the discount stores. We stock only those toys that we feel are toys of worth, that a child would want to return to the next day, the next week. Those we would label as worthwhile toys. We like to think we are arbiters of taste, and good taste."
Good taste . . . How better to signal an upper-class intransigence in the face of the 20th century than to go to Schwarz, ignore the burnoose crowd looking at the $850 mini-cars, and buy, instead, a Haddon rocking horse, imported from Oxfordshire, England, and priced at $995, even though it is no longer covered with calf skin.
"We have no more skin-covered rocking horses. We got them from Spain, but the Spanish government said all skins should go to the shoe manufacturers."
A pity. Schwarz will never again be able to advertise, as it did in 1957, a rocking horse with skin that "can be brushed and combed and taken care of -- a privilege not enjoyed by the plain wooden horse owners."
Even with rocking horses at $995, Schwarz should not be viewed as exemplifying big spending. Quite the opposite, thrift always having been a virtue much admired by the upper classes, much like the privilege of serving, even if one is serving one's rocking horse with comb and brush.
Hence, McDermott can complain: "Most of today's toys require batteries, which is a shame."
Asked why, he answers: "So expensive!"
Schwarz still sells croquet sets and garden tools, alphabet blocks in a wagon, and little china tea sets, all known as "never-out" items. It no longer stocks velocipedes or bicycle polo mallets, older customers may be disappointed to learn.
And those mammoth stuffed toys. Who buys them?
"It's not the usual people next door," McDermott says. "Lots of celebrities -- Elizabeth Taylor bought a giraffe when she was married to Richard Burton. She had it delivered to her hotel room. Institutions buy them. We had a full-size horse for $2,500 that we sold to a restaurant. A Japanese hog breeder bought a Steiff hog."
How, it is asked, did the store know who he was?
"Well, a Japanese buying a hog." McDermott says. For anyone to buy it, but a Japanese . . .
It is pointed out that it can't be too strange -- after all, F.A.O. Schwarz stocked the hog.
McDermott's face brightens. It is all so wonderfully obvious.
"That's what makes us so unusual, you see."