I’m one of those nostalgic Gen-Xers who remembers lying on my stomach, legs crossed at the ankles, poring over the Sears Wish Book every Christmas. I’d circle the Lil’ Lady Buggy, Barbie Dreamhouse, Sweet Tears baby doll, then present my list to the Santa at the local VFW.
For years, my sons and I were able to re-create the tradition each winter with that season’s dog-eared Toys “R” Us catalogue. We’d cuddle up on the couch, circling the giant Imaginext Batcave and ogling the overly complicated Hot Wheels tracks. I’d find the boys early in the morning scrutinizing the catalogue in bed or over cereal. They recited their choices to Santa, then I’d refer to the weathered catalogue when it was time to shop.
But Toys “R” Us went belly up earlier this year, and with it went the only toy catalogue I’d ever found in my mailbox. So I set out to get my hands on a catalogue a few weeks back — and it was a lot harder than I imagined it would be.
When the toy giant closed its doors in March, the end of its 100-page “big book” didn’t cross my mind. But Amazon sure thought about it. In July, the online behemoth announced that it would take the decidedly retro step of printing its own toy catalogue. “A Holiday of Play” would be sent to millions of homes and be available at Whole Foods, also owned by Amazon. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) There are no prices, but there are QR codes to scan and visit product pages.
Only I never got it.
I reached out to Amazon, and a representative told me the company is no longer delivering the catalogue through the mail but sent me a link to download it onto my Kindle. My kids only get to use tablets on airplanes — and besides, there’s no way to circle toys on a Kindle — so this was a no-go for me.
My mom, aware of my quandary, stopped by a Whole Foods to pick up a copy, but she didn’t have any more luck. “They didn’t know what I was talking about,” she told me.
I turned my attention to the look books for Target and Walmart. I chatted online with a Walmart representative who told me that there was no way he could send me a catalogue. When I tried chatting with Target via Facebook Messenger, a bot just repeatedly asked me, “Who do you need a gift for?”
I’m apparently not the only parent struggling to get my hands on a paper catalogue. On Facebook, a mom in New Jersey lamented, “I have not received Amazon’s highly coveted toy catalogue. Guess we didn’t make the cut.” A Texas mom tweeted at Target this week, “I didn’t receive the Toy catalog this year and we couldn’t find one at the store. Is there any way I can have one (or two) sent to my house? The kids want to flip through it to make their wishlists.”
Finding a toy catalogue is a decidedly first-world problem, and perhaps the bulky guides are wasteful and should become a thing of the past. Maybe they aren’t in the holiday spirit, encouraging greed or an outsize focus on presents. But as a mom trying to prevent my children from living a life dominated by screens, my inability to get a low-tech, no-frills, paper copy is frustrating.
This whole episode also reminds me that buying toys now is so different from when I was a child. My brother and I begged our parents to take us to Children’s Palace near the mall in our Pennsylvania hometown, a giant store with wide aisles devoted to Barbie and Legos. I dreamed of that store, imagining myself set loose to play with anything I wanted. It eventually became a Toys “R” Us, and now the building sits empty.
Today, our local toy store in Brooklyn is a small storefront packed so tightly you can barely push a stroller through — such a tight squeeze that I once had a stack of Ninja Turtles land on my head. Still, I cherish the rare occasions when I can roam the aisles solo, holding each Paw Patrol vehicle in my hands before I purchase it and choosing just the right Lego set.
But while I hate to admit it, the bulk of my toy shopping is done online. I work full time, and it feels like the only way to get the specific Beyblade my son is begging for without visiting 12 brick-and-mortar stores. It’s also the only way the presents can be shipped to grandma’s, where we celebrate Christmas this year. The toy catalogue feels like a small way of recapturing the wonder of a time before gifts could be bought with one click.
In the end, I found my printed 2018 holiday toy catalogue — on the Internet, of course.
I was about to throw in the towel and break out the tablet when I remembered eBay. And sure enough, seven savvy salespeople there were auctioning Target catalogues for $5 a pop. Is it ridiculous to pay for a book of advertisements? Maybe. But it feels like a small price to pay for a little holiday magic.
Carrie Melago is a journalist and mother of two boys living in Brooklyn. She’s an editor at the Chalkbeat, the education news network, and has worked at the Wall Street Journal and New York Daily News. Follow her on Twitter @carriemelago.