Charles P. Lazarus, who founded Toys R Us, the toy store chain that for decades captured the hearts of American consumers but that eventually faded and succumbed to bankruptcy, died Thursday. He was 94.
His family said Lazarus, who lived in Manhattan, died of respiratory failure at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
Lazarus’ death comes one week after Toys R Us announced that it would start liquidating its stores in the United States. Loaded down by debt and unable to attract new investment, the chain could no longer compete with more nimble toy sellers like Amazon and Walmart, and in September it filed for bankruptcy.
In the months since, company executives were unable to convince lenders that they had a viable plan to turn around the flagging business, and a dismal holiday sales season signaled that Toys R Us was nearing the end. The closings announced last week could result in more than 30,000 employees’ losing their jobs.
It was a painful denouement for a company that Lazarus founded 70 years ago in Washington, D.C., and that grew into a global toy seller with thousands of stores in locations stretching from the United Kingdom to Asia.
An aggressive entrepreneur, Lazarus steered his company through decades of growth and several years of financial turmoil, including a previous bankruptcy. The company’s ultimate success came down to Lazarus’ ability to master a basic question: What do children want to play with?
“When you look at what the creativity of the toy market is, you have to have imagination, you have to think like a child,” he told a documentary filmmaker in a 2016 interview.
Lazarus opened his first store, Children’s Bargain Town, which sold furniture, in 1948, seeking to cash in on the post-World War II baby boom. Within a few years, he began selling toys along with cribs and strollers.
In toys, Lazarus discovered a more lucrative business: Because toys and stuffed animals quickly fell out of favor with children, parents had to make frequent trips to the store to keep up with the latest fads.
He opened his first store dedicated exclusively to toys in 1957 and called it Toys R Us (though he turned the R around to face the other way to make it look like a child had written it).
The company went on to open up cavernous big-box stores across the American suburbs, dominating toys sales with deep discounts and a huge selection, and squeezing out smaller toy shops.
Along the way Lazarus’ company endeared itself to generations of children, with a lovable mascot in Geoffrey the Giraffe and a hummable jingle — “I don’t want to grow up, I’m a Toys R Us kid.”
Toys R Us became a retailing powerhouse internationally with stores in Spain, Canada and Singapore. President George H.W. Bush joined Lazarus for the opening of the company’s first store in Japan in 1992.
“He was a pioneer in big box movement,” said Gerald Storch, who was chief executive of Toys R Us from 2006 to 2013. “His business concept was as innovative as e-commerce is today.”
Storch said he regularly reminded his staff of the founder’s key business principles: “Having more toys than anyone else, having great prices and being in stock when no one else is in stock.”
Born on Oct. 4, 1923, in Washington and raised there, Charles Philip Lazarus was inspired to open his own retail business after helping his parents, Frank and Phoebe, run a bicycle shop. He decided to go into baby furniture after watching servicemen return from World War II, marry and start having children.
Toys, he learned, can be a more fickle business. “If you come to us to buy a toy, nobody makes you buy a toy,” he told the documentary filmmaker. “Although over the years, I have taught children to say ‘I need, rather than I want it.’”
His understanding of a child’s mindset helped him amass a considerable fortune; he owned a Fifth Avenue duplex in Manhattan, which was sold for $21 million in 2013.
Lazarus stepped down as chief executive and chairman in March 1994. But he remained involved in the company as chairman emeritus, making a visit to the Toys R Us headquarters in Wayne, New Jersey, as recently as last year.
He is survived by his wife, Joan Lazarus, and two daughters, Diane and Ruth.
Michael Goldstein, a former chief executive at Toys R Us who worked with Lazarus for many years and had become a close friend, said he did not mention the liquidation to Lazarus when he saw him Saturday.
“The beauty of Toys R Us was that we were the toy store for children across the world,” Goldstein said.
By the early 2000s, Toys R Us’ business model was under pressure, and the company was purchased by a group of private equity investors in a leveraged buyout in 2005. The new owners loaded the company with $5 billion in debt, a burden it was never able to overcome.
“There have been many sad moments for Toys R Us in recent weeks, and none more heartbreaking than today’s news about the passing of our beloved founder, Charles Lazarus,” Toys R Us said in its statement Thursday afternoon. “We will forever be grateful for his positive energy, passion for the customer and love for children everywhere.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.