I can't say my heart broke when I heard the news that FAO Schwarz had filed for Chapter 11 for a second time and may soon cease to exist; I had long ago lost touch with the firm that so fired my imagination as a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Like Peter Pan's Wendy, I grew up and out of my own toys, and I have a son, now 12, whose passions run almost exclusively to electronic boxes -- televisions, computers, Playstations and Walkmans -- pushing the world of gracious, high-end retailing even deeper into my past.
So it should have been easy for me to accept at face value the media's explanations for the chain's demise -- once devoted to unique, expensive toys, FAO Schwarz couldn't compete with Toys R Us, much less Wal-Mart -- and move on.
But it wasn't that easy. Instead, I kept thinking of the FAO Schwarz catalogs of my childhood. It's hard to convey the magic of those mailings, which I desperately awaited as a child. I grew up in San Antonio, a decent-sized city then, but not one connected, particularly, to the larger world. My experience with toy stores was limited to the one at the nearest mall, which met all my Barbie needs, and the FAO Schwarz catalog, which offered toys you never saw anywhere else.
That catalog provided just the right mixture of fantasy and reality for children who would come of age in the late 1960s: It spoke to their acquisitiveness, which has turned out to be mighty, but it also spoke to their creativity, which turned out to be fairly good-sized too.
The catalogs were simple: glossy pages with understated black-and-white photos. But the pictures depicted everything a little girl could possibly want: complete child-sized replicas of 1950s kitchens, with impeccably rendered cabinets, oven doors that opened and faucet handles that turned; electrified dollhouses with sprawling side porches, modeled after comfortable salt boxes in better suburbs; scratchy, soulful-eyed Steiff stuffed animals with their status-conscious canary-yellow ear tags. There were costumes for every fantasy: "princess, gypsy, fairy, nurse, cowgirl and many more," according to one EBay catalog description now. (Boys had their choice of "soldier, Mountie, doctor and cowboy"; it was another time.)
Then, of course, there were the horses. Horse-crazy preteen girls could own -- if their parents would only buy -- not just a horse whose legs moved as he was pushed about, but a (removable) saddle, bridle and wool blanket, as well as a stall. The horse had real hair too. The richest kids could order miniature horse farms, accessorized with barns, tack and tiny plastic grooms. For years I lusted after a Shetland pony-sized rocking horse with a combable mane and tail, and removable accouterments. Priced at around $500 in 1960s dollars, my parents could have bought me a real pony for about the same amount.
Of course they didn't buy either one. In our house, the FAO Schwarz catalog was a wish book; I wished for the fanciest things, but I never really expected to get them. That was a lesson in itself: Even at 6 or 7, I understood that there were kids who got those gifts, kids with a very different life from my own.
For instance, a 1955 catalog entry for "Hunting figures, horses, dogs" reads: "Love for horses and dogs is universal and experienced by all ages. Because of this general feeling, these excellent reproductions can be enjoyed by many as a nice addition to a trophy or game room, or a mantelpiece. While the pictures reveal their excellent conformation, they do not show the well muscled legs and flanks nor the soft, natural texture of their bodies. ... " Somewhere beyond the reaches of San Antonio -- or my neighborhood, at least -- I understood that there were people with things called trophy rooms, people who placed a premium on "excellent conformation." I don't know that I coveted such a life, but I understood that privileged people bore watching, for reasons to be determined.
But there was something else about the FAO Schwarz catalog that always transcended privilege, and it had to do with time, the greatest of all luxury goods. In the past, privileged children seem to have had eons of it, time to float carved wooden boats in nearby ponds, time to dream up an urban scenario in a "Jackie Gleason Bus Driver costume."
What are the contemporary counterparts? Yakking toys created as movie tie-ins, or homework disguised as "educational toys," perfect for the Harvard-bound toddler.
"With the Leapster Learning Library," the Toys R Us website insists, "children can PLAY action-packed learning games, READ electronic storybooks, CREATE works of art, and WATCH interactive videos! Play and learn essential pre-K through 2nd-grade skills that include: reading, math, critical and creative thinking ... vocabulary and much more."
FAO Schwarz and its customers knew, once, the difference between doing and being, understood that children needed time alone, in peace, to imagine their futures, even if it was just to scan the pages of a catalog. Those children are gone now, so there is no need for a company that catered to them. That's a reason to mourn, if ever there was one.
Mimi Swartz, executive editor of Texas Monthly, wrote for the New Yorker from 1995 to 1997. She coauthored "Power Failure: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Enron" (Doubleday, 2003).