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Charles Lazarus, who turned a Washington bike business into Toys R Us, dies at 94

Toys R Us founder Charles Lazarus. (Cheryl Chenet/Corbis via Getty Images)

Charles Lazarus, who transformed his father’s Washington bicycle business into Toys R Us, a retail giant that rivaled Santa Claus’s workshop as one of the world’s largest distributors of games, dolls, stuffed animals and other children’s goodies before it declared bankruptcy in September, died March 22. He was 94.

A Toys R Us spokeswoman confirmed the death but did not provide additional details.

Mr. Lazarus was 25 when he founded what became Toys R Us, his “supermarket for toys,” in 1948. Over six decades, the company grew into an international empire with a flagship store in New York’s Times Square, a giraffe mascot named Geoffrey and an earworm jingle: “I don’t wanna grow up, I’m a Toys R Us kid.”

The “Toy King,” as Mr. Lazarus was christened in headlines, stepped down as chief executive in 1994. His company soon became mired in a pitched battle against big-box retailers such as Walmart, founded by his friend Sam Walton, and e-commerce giants such as Amazon. Acquired by private equity firms in 2005, it eventually took on $7.9 billion of debt, according to bankruptcy filings. Last week, it announced it would sell or close all 735 of its U.S. stores.

Mr. Lazarus had weathered countless industry changes over the years to become one of America’s highest-performing, best-paid business leaders. A hands-on executive who once tested baby toys by hanging mobiles over cribs, he steered his company from bikes to baby furniture to toys, later adding children’s clothes and video games.

He had served as an Army cryptographer during World War II, and after returning home he decided to sell cribs and cradles from his father’s Adams Morgan bike shop, now the site of Madam’s Organ, a popular bar and restaurant. An uncle was in the baby-furniture business, and Mr. Lazarus said he anticipated a postwar baby boom. He soon took over the space entirely, turning the storefront into a shop named Children’s Bargain Town, flipping the Rs in reverse in a whimsical touch that he later used for the signage of Toys R Us.

“The toy business was kind of an accident,” Mr. Lazarus later explained to the trade publication DSN Retailing Today. “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.”

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Mr. Lazarus opened his first toys-only store in 1957 in Rockville, Md., taking on the name Toys R Us in part because the letter “R” helped fit the store’s name onto signs. He modeled his locations after the New York chain Korvettes, in which a large variety of products were stocked in long aisles, easily accessible by shopping cart. By 1966, he had four stores and $12 million in sales.

Perhaps anticipating that his company had peaked, Mr. Lazarus sold Toys R Us that year to the Interstate department store chain for $7.5 million, remaining with the business as head of its toys division. When Interstate went bankrupt in 1974, Mr. Lazarus took the reins of the company, which emerged from bankruptcy and renamed itself Toys R Us in 1978.

The business went on to expand at a rate of nearly 20 percent each year, elbowing department stores out of the toy business as it added locations across the country and grew to offer about 18,000 items in each store in the mid-1980s.

According to Eric Clark, author of “The Real Toy Story: Inside the Ruthless Battle for America’s Youngest Consumers,” the company’s success was in part a result of tough business tactics by Mr. Lazarus. The executive used his leverage in the industry to force toymakers to accept payment months after they delivered products, and insisted they grant Toys R Us exclusive offerings, early releases and free advertising.

Unusual for the time, he also oversaw the installation of a computerized inventory system that allowed him to track sales and inventory from behind his desk.

“I think Toys R Us is a unique operation — the only proprietary merchandise company that rivals IBM as revolutionary in concept,” a retail analyst told The Washington Post in 1982. “Their superb controls and information systems are unrivaled in the industry.”

Mr. Lazarus applied his low-cost, high-volume strategy to clothing beginning in 1983, when he opened Kids R Us stores in Brooklyn and Paramus, N.J. The brand launched stores across the country but proved less successful than Babies R Us, which opened in 1996 and sold diapers, cribs and car seats.

Mr. Lazarus had by then left his day-to-day oversight role at the company, which by 1987 had made him the country’s best-paid executive, according to Forbes magazine. He earned more than $60 million that year.

“If you’re going to be a success in life, you have to want it,” he told Forbes in an earlier interview. “I wanted it. I was poor. I wanted to be rich.”

Charles Phillip Lazarus was born in Washington on Oct. 4, 1923.

According to New York magazine, he had two daughters with his first wife, Udyss. Their marriage ended in divorce, and he generated tabloid headlines from his subsequent marriage to sex therapist Helen Singer Kaplan. Shortly before her death in 1995, she wrote a note requesting a divorce — an act that apparently exercised a provision in their prenuptial agreement entitling her, and by extension her three children, to $20 million.

Mr. Lazarus challenged the claim, and in 2000 a Manhattan judge dismissed a fraud charge filed by Mr. Lazarus’s stepchildren over the issue. He later married Joan Regenbogen, an interior designer. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

“Nobody has to buy what we sell. You buy it because you want to buy it,” Mr. Lazarus said in a recent documentary, explaining a simple yet crucial aspect to his company’s growth. “Although, over the years, I have tried to teach children to say I need it rather than I want it.”

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