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Not kidding around: The Toys R Us chain got its start in Washington

Toys R Us got its start in Washington, the brainchild of Charles Lazarus, who grew up above his parents' Adams Morgan bicycle store. (Eric Gay/AP)

As a 68-year-old, lifelong D.C. resident, I seem to recall a Toys R Us located in the 500 block of K Street NW. Is this a “false” memory?

— James Aukard, Washington

In 1987, the most highly paid CEO in the United States wasn’t Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca, who earned a paltry $17.7 million. It wasn’t Jim Manzi of Lotus Development Corp. ($26.3 million).

It was a toy salesman from Washington. His name was Charles Lazarus and his annual compensation was $60 million.

Toys had been very, very good to him.

The short answer is, yes, there was a toy store at 501 K St. NW. Answer Man can’t be certain that it was ever named Toys R Us, but it was an early outpost of the Lazarus empire, a precursor to the chain that would spread across the world, delighting countless children and transforming the way toys are sold.

The Toys R Us story actually begins about two miles away, at 2461 18th St. NW in Adams Morgan. That’s where Frank and Fannie Lazarus ran a business called the National Sports Shop. The couple sold bicycles, with an emphasis on refurbishing used bikes.

In 1949, a Washington Post reader wrote to the paper’s consumer columnist asking if anyone in town repaired baby walkers. The reader was directed to that Adams Morgan address, where, The Post columnist wrote, repairs were made on “every sort of wheel goods, specializing in infants’ carriages, strollers and walkers.”

Frank and Fannie’s son Charles had served in the Army as a cryptographer. After World War II, Charles returned to the District and cast about for a business opportunity. In 1948, reasoning that a postwar baby boom would be good for child-related retail, he started selling baby furniture out of his parents’ sporting goods store.

Lazarus soon realized that baby furniture didn’t provide the sort of regular turnover that translated to constant sales. As he later explained to the trade publication DSN Retailing Today: “The toy business was kind of an accident. I started out selling a few baby toys and realized that customers didn’t buy another crib or another high chair or playpen as their family grew, but they did buy toys for each child.”

By 1952, the National Sports Shop on 18th Street had shed the bicycles and been transformed into the National Baby Shop. That year, an ad in The Post promised American Flyer Trains at 20 percent off.

In May 1956, a retail outfit called the Children’s Supermart opened at 501 K St. NW near Mount Vernon Square. It was a warehouse-style, 40,000-square-foot cash-and-carry toy store that, according to a large classified ad in The Post, promised “the LOWEST PRICES in the U.S.A.”

Directly above that Children’s Supermart ad was a separate ad for Lazarus’s 18th Street store. It had shed the National Baby Shop name and was apparently going by the name Baby Supermarket. “Thousands buy at Baby Supermarket,” the ad boasted. “There must be some reason.”

The ad then noted: “This is our only location — we have no branch stores.”

Answer Man isn’t sure why the two stores tried to distance themselves from one another. The K Street store was run by Lazarus’s brother-in-law and co-investor, a tax lawyer named S. Walter Shine. Perhaps Lazarus was testing out names or concepts.

According to corporate histories of the toy giant, the Toys R Us name — the R rendered backward, as if drawn by a child — made its debut in 1957. Answer Man isn’t so sure. By October 1958 Lazarus had dropped any pretense that the 18th Street and K Street stores were separate endeavors. He opened what an ad called “our third and largest juvenile discount supermart” on Rockville Pike. This was called Bargaintown USA, where “Every day is discount day!”

Rocking horses were 33 percent off. Viewmasters that sold for $2.50 elsewhere were $1.82. Bicycles — “biggest and best selection anywhere!” — started at $24.94. Perhaps that appealed to Lazarus, who grew up above a bike store.

Two years later, a fourth location — called Children’s Supermart — opened at Baileys Crossroads. A reporter for the Evening Star wrote that Lazarus’s growing chain had “tossed away the book” with its approach to retail, adding: “Its stores with the dewy-eyed giraffe for a trademark offered no credit, no delivery, no carpeting, and an every-man-for-himself battleground when the Christmas rush began.”

It’s only in 1964 that Answer Man finds the name Toys R Us cropping up in newspaper ads.

Founder Charles Lazarus died in 2018 at age 94. The toy giant has had its ups and downs over the years. Its latest incarnation includes Toys R Us-branded departments in Macy’s stores.

Today, the Adams Morgan rowhouse where it all began sells something rather more grown up. The former National Baby Shop is home to the bar Madam’s Organ.

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