Charles Lazarus, who combined supermarket-style service with touches of whimsy in creating Toys “R” Us, a longtime retail success that fought debt and competition and finally succumbed just last week, has died. He was 94.
He died Thursday in Manhattan, said Michael Goldstein, a friend and former company chairman.
Unable to fend off rivals while saddled with more than $5 billion in debt, the company filed for bankruptcy in September 2017 and in recent days began closing down its U.S. and U.K. operations while attempting to reorganize and sell its remaining international units. The chain includes more than 1,600 Toys “R” Us and Babies “R” Us stores in 38 countries.
From the first Toys “R” Us outlet, opened in 1957 in the Maryland suburbs, Lazarus stuck to a winning formula of high volume, discounted prices and predictability.
As much as anyone, he transformed the toy business from Christmas-focused to year-round. A 1986 article in Atlantic Monthly magazine called Lazarus “the person most responsible for loosening Santa’s grip on the toy business.” His strategy created the world’s largest toy-store chain.
Charles Phillip Lazarus was born Oct. 4, 1923, in Washington, the son of Frank and Fannie Lazarus. From an early age he helped his father refurbish broken bicycles and sell them.
“I always wondered why we didn’t sell new bicycles,” he said. “My father said it was because the big chain stores could sell them so much cheaper than we could.”
In 1948, following military service during World War II as a cryptographer, he took over his father’s store and replaced the bicycles with baby furniture. He switched again, to toys.
“Toys are a great kind of thing to sell, because they don’t last that long.”