Unsupervised in the Mall: My Memories of Kay Bee Toys.
Updated: May 19, 2022
Retro Injection paid homage to our local Toys "R" Us, while the retailer was on the brink of shutting its doors for good. In that article, I spoke of my love for Kay Bee. My attachment to Kay Bee is strong, primarily because I basically grew up in a mall with one of their locations. When our K-B Toys went out of business, it was replaced with the shoe store pictured below. Talk about depressing. I'm holding Hedorah, a Godzilla figure. When it joined my monster armada in 2008, it was my last K-B Toys purchase. The toy store's register was located where you see the purses hanging.
Despite our mall being in dire straits, I still go there on a regular basis. It's a part of me, if that makes sense. I can't walk by the above retail space without thinking of Kay Bee, and the time in 1988 when I found a $20 bill on the floor right outside the store. I was seven years old, and my dad and I spotted it at the exact same moment. He raced me to it, but only half-hardheartedly. With that legal tender in my tiny grasp, I felt like a millionaire. I'd like to say I decided right then to open a hedge fund, but Kay Bee got my cash in about five minutes: I bought a case for my Real Ghostbusters figures, and with the few remaining cents, I got one of those popper things that you turn inside out and put on a table. (I know that's really vague, so I included a video. Incidentally, don't search YouTube for "popper.")
Sadly, when I was about twelve, I decided I was too old for toys, and sold most of my stuff at a rummage sale like an idiot. That action figure case would have been among the casualties, so here's a stock photo courtesy of Pinterest. Slimer looks uncharacteristically peeved:
Another "found money K-B Toys memory" occurred around 2007. My friend Luke and I were hanging around at our favorite haunt, the local parking garage. (We're pretty tough.) In a glorious stroke of fortune, we stumbled upon probably $30 in $1 bills scattered on the concrete. We split the proceeds evenly. I worked at the mall at the time, and later that day I used some of the money at K-B Toys to purchase this "Softimus Prime" plush Transformer! Yes, it's a transforming pillow. Incredible.
But back to business: Founded in 1922, Kay Bee was once a player in the plaything industry, with 1,200 locations across the country. Also operating a subsidiary toy chain called Circus World, Kay Bee was the second longest-running toy retailer in the United States, preceded by FAO Schwarz, which has been kickin' since 1862.
Rebranded "K-B Toys" in 1998, the retail giant was known across America as "The Toy Store in the Mall," and that setup provided a workable business model for decades. But brick-and-mortar stores have long been in trouble, and in February 2009, K-B Toys ceased to be. The company's name and assets were bought out by the once-great Toys "R" Us. Getting swallowed up by their primary rival, K-B Toys had fallen hard: Check out this 1988 commercial, which directly slams Toys "R" Us with its giraffe imagery! (The mascot for Toys "R" Us being Geoffrey the Giraffe, in case you thought I'd officially lost it there.)
Here's my Kay Bee backstory: By the time my eighth-grade year rolled around in 1995, my school had gotten dangerous, to the point where local stores sold t-shirts which read, "I survived Broadway Middle School." Regular instances of physical violence against me (and the other kid getting served) prompted my parents to pull me from the district, and get me a private tutor. At that point in time, it was to become the greatest few months of my life.
My grandfather owned a chain of Christian bookstores. To some extent, it was a family business, and my mom worked at his mall location. I also appeared in one of his commercials when I was about six years old, because the public loves that schmaltzy stuff.
Unless you've been tutored (or home schooled, as my wife could vouch), you'll never understand how much time the traditional public school system wastes. I completed my courses for that year by working three-day school weeks. On my days off, I would go to the mall with my mom, and just hang out the entire time. We're talking a solid nine hours at the mall, on a regular basis, as a fourteen year-old boy in the mid '90s. It was incredible, and I never got tired of it: The Time-Out arcade, with its fighting games and endless free samples of Butterfinger BB's, which I stuffed in the pockets of my Syracuse University Starter jacket. The Electronics Boutique, where I would geek out over the latest tech. Gorgeous young women navigating the corridors, unattainable to a child in the throes of puberty. Greasy sesame chicken lunches at New Orient in the food court. And Kay Bee, with its huge selection of video game cartridges. All the while, I was fully aware of those suckers sitting in class, which made it that much sweeter.
Yes, Kay Bee was its own little oasis in that Mecca of consumerism. I would head in there, sometimes multiple times a day, and grouse over the Sega Genesis games and peripherals. I also recall when the home console version of arcade brawler Mortal Kombat 3 hit the shelves. A guy at the counter was grilling the sales clerk, asking him if all the content from the coin-op game was in the Sega cartridge. The customer couldn't believe it was possible, and in truth, the Genesis port of MK 3 was an impressive achievement.
I eventually got my coveted Mortal Kombat 3 cartridge, but not at Kay Bee, which had sold out. I had to convince my dad to make a two-hour round trip to pick up the game at a shady secondhand game store, which has since gone out of business. The pictured cartridge, with no box nor manual and imprinted with a dog's bite marks, set me back fifty bucks! (On the plus side, I probably consumed $200 dollars' worth of those free Butterfinger BB's.) Even at fourteen, I knew this cartridge was way overpriced, but I wanted to indulge in some consequence-free dismemberment. No. Make that needed.
I once saw Irwin's Sailor Moon dolls and dress-up accessories on deep discount at my beloved Kay-Bee, wondering who would ever want them even at a few dollars a piece. As it turns out, some of the boxed Sailor Moon figures have sold on eBay for sums that approach astronomical (pun intended).
Kay Bee would always have toys in the entryway for customers to experience first hand. Our store would have the classic "weasel playing with a ball," before the animal rights crowd got to it:
Back then, it was the same toy, but the upper half of the weasel and the entirety of the ball was inside a cloth pouch, making it look as though an indeterminate rodent was struggling to get out of a fabric prison!
Another memory of these storefront displays was the remote control Batmobile, from 1992's Batman Returns. My dad, a kid at heart to this day, was playing with it while a little guy about five years old was growing impatient. Rather than just relinquishing the fun, as most adults would do, my father told him, "You'll get your turn!" (Writing about that just now, I couldn't help but laugh.)
In 1998, I remember printing out my pixelated, monochrome self-portrait from K-B Toys' Game Boy Camera display, and thinking things couldn't get more high-tech.
Even years prior to my days of being a mall rat, I was enamored with Kay-Bee. In 1991, when I was drinking Kool-Aid like it was going out of style, I mailed in the now-discontinued Kool-Aid points to acquire my Wacky-Zany Video. Those points also scored me the cup, which came in a set. (They were fifteen Kool-Aid points, in case you cared.) You can see genuine early '90s toothpaste on the drinking vessel!
The following video spans the tape in its near-entirety. With this cassette in my possession, I thought I was the coolest kid around. Whenever my parents' friends would come over, I always played them the tape, assuming they would think it was as great as I did. Looking back, it must have been awkward for them, but everyone was always polite about it. With its forced edginess, this programming screams "early '90s" like perhaps nothing else.
Here's some stuff I (or my family) got from the local Kay Bee over the years. Even up to its closing, I still shopped there, as they always had things that weren't easily found at other stores. (That's because K-B Toys eventually served as a liquidator for discontinued items. In its later years, it really was The Island of Misfit Toys.) I have more items from the store, but they didn't get featured for the sake of pacing.
Both of my Street Fighter II Sega Genesis cartridges came from the legendary Kay Bee. I shudder to think of all the hours I've played them, instead of accomplishing something productive. Thanks, Capcom.
I freaked out when I found the following Street Fighter II poster in the back of Kay Bee on a "no school" day. I showed it to my mom at her office. She responded, "Oh, my goodness." To this day, I have no idea what she meant by that. The poster hung in my bedroom all throughout my childhood, and a couple of years ago I finally got it framed. It currently resides in my home arcade.
In 1998, I purchased my PlayStation at Kay-Bee. The system failed on me within a couple of years, which gave me a long-term bias against Sony. Here's the box from when I listed it on eBay in 2019. It fetched a princely sum of $20.00.
I've been a Godzilla fan for many years, and in fact had a figure of the Big G depict me on our wedding cake. I have this unopened Bandai Godzilla figure set, still bearing the original K-B Toys price tag! Pictured with the box are some of my other Godzilla models from the store, one of which has a cameo in my low-budget movie.
I received Cyborg Justice for my eighth grade graduation. My options were a dinner out at a fancy restaurant, or a Genesis cartridge. That meal would have been long gone by now. In a loose association, the game is accompanied by a Terminator 2: Judgement Day action figure: A product of the late, great Kenner, it was also purchased from The Toy Store in the Mall! My dad played Cyborg Justice with me on multiple occasions. (He also used to be really good at Street Fighter II.)
Similar to M.U.S.C.L.E., Monster in My Pocket was a line of little creatures which you were supposed to amass for no apparent reason. Not only did I get my Monster in My Pocket figures from Kay Bee, I also used to swap them with another kid, right in the mall! I'll never forget my mom's old phone book, with a listing for "John (monster trader)." Debuting around Halloween 1989, the commercial touted them as "squishy," which they really aren't. (They're more of a dense rubber.) It was something of an initial disappointment, but come on, they were monsters. Here are the remains of my once-great Monster in My Pocket collection. Around 1992, I mailed away for a huge, black plastic "Monster Mountain" display case for these guys. Sure enough, we came home one day to find a tall, thin box waiting on the porch. At eleven years old, it was a big deal to get an actual package in the mail, and my mom was gracious enough to hang the mountain in the kitchen! I believe it eventually fell from the wall and broke, because I never arbitrarily toss anything.
Finally, Optimash Prime Mr. Potato Head can be the official representative of all the Transformers I purchased at Kay-Bee. (He happened to be one of the few Transformers I had laying around after our move to Arizona.) I love how Hasbro trademarked "Potatoes in Disguise" just because they could.
In a rare occurrence, this Retro Injection article actually pertains to current events. (Don't give me too much credit; it wasn't intentional.) While writing this up, I was thrilled to learn that after being shuttered for almost a decade, K-B Toys is poised to make a comeback! Toys "R" Us let their registration of the K-B Toys name lapse in 2016, and Strategic Marks, LLC was there to pick up the ball. Capitalizing on the death of Toys "R" Us, Strategic Marks is looking to reintroduce the beloved chain back into the industry. They're aiming to have 1,000 temporary stores open before Black Friday 2018, after which they'll evaluate which locations will become fixtures. (UPDATE: This never happened.) The company is also in the process of resurrecting defunct department stores such as Bamberger's and Jordan Marsh. Nice job, corporate vultures! How about giving Ames some love? (Join us as we urban explore our abandoned Ames, pictured below.)
That's all for this one. By the way, I hope you noticed I used "Kay Bee" and "K-B Toys" as appropriate to the time periods of the anecdotes. Man, do I have fun here!
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