When I turned four, I was taken for a walk up the street to the local toy shop and allowed to choose a present. The shop was a Toyworld – you remember, one of those big, purple deals with the giant purple bear wearing a cap in the modern fashion.
As a brand, Toyworld’s history dates back to 1976, when parent company Associated Retailers Limited realised that name wouldn’t look as good in rainbow colours on a toyshop marquee. Toyworld was launched as the retail group’s toy arm at a time when toys themselves were about to be ripped from their ancient comfort zones and thrust into a golden age of action figures by the blockbuster success of Star Wars. Riding this phenomenon from the late 70s through the mid 80s on brands such as Star Wars, Masters of the Universe and Transformers, Toyworld changed the face of toy retailers in Australasia, emblazoning that happy purple bear on hobby, sport and toy shops everywhere. Toyworld itself isn’t too sure about its own legacy, as the embarrassingly evident indecisiveness on its website demonstrates.
They didn’t entirely abandon their sporting goods heritage, either. Plenty of kids would have unwrapped a BMX (can you wrap a BMX? wouldn’t that look awkward as hell?) in front of jealous friends on birthdays or jealous siblings at Xmas, completely unaware that a purple bear had profited from their joy. For me, the sporting goods section of Toyworld was the absolute no-go zone. Who cared about some cricket pads when there were NINJA TURTLES over here? Or what about down there, in that bargain bucket out the front, for five bucks each?
On that glorious February day, I chose as my present the three Ghostbusters I was missing (I already had Venkman). My logic: I was turning four, and now I would have four of them. It worked – before long, the Ghostbusters were a team once more, zapping those crazy rubber ghosts until I saw an ad for Batman figures on TV and coloured Venkman black (see pic) in the hope he’d suffice. He didn’t.
And so my direct association with Alf Broome’s Toyworld ended, but I never forgot it. It was a hard place to forget purely on a visual level; from the purple frontage to the bear to the giant LEGO logo plastered on a mysterious door beside the shop, the whole place was designed to be an assault on a child’s senses, and oh what a glorious assault it was.
But what I didn’t know – couldn’t have known – at the time was the turmoil within. By 1988, Hurstville Toyworld was under siege, with struggles on local, national and even global fronts. Behind that happy purple face was a saga of bitterness and commercial impotence in the face a formidable threat to the entire toy industry.
As the article says, Broome’s toy shop had been around since 1971, first as the sports and toy shop, and then as Toyworld. Broome says that business boomed until 1986, when local opposition (likely the nearby Westfield, which had been constructed in 1978) made inroads into his business. The immediate effect of this encroachment was evident in the bargain bins outside – $5 Ghostbuster figures is a sign of the times.
Then, as Broome puts it, a “ripper recession” devastated any chance of recovery in 1990, with severe storm damage that same year not helping matters. Another strange point of impact upon sales mentioned by Broome was construction of a ‘new plaza’ by local council. Hmm…I’ll have to look into that one.
Broome banked it all on a healthy Christmas ’90 trading period that never came. The recently refurbished Westfield offered stiff competition, and globally, toys had begun their decline in popularity with the rise of video games. Even with the 1988 advent of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, nothing could be done to stop the Nintendo/Sega tag-team, which by 1992 had all but ended the age of dedicated toy shops, relegating Barbies and He-Men to toy departments, or bigger chains like World 4 Kids. Rather than face the likelihood bankruptcy, Alf Broome chose to walk away.
That was 1991.
Today, the building still stands, despite the near constant construction and refurbishment of the area. Of course, it’s been standing there since 1899, and has probably seen more failure than you or I could ever imagine. The first post-Toyworld occupant was Belmontes Pizza Shop, and man was I ever bitter. I couldn’t believe the toy shop had gone, and pledged never to frequent the usurpers.
Chuan’s Kitchen, the current successor to a line of failed take-aways that has populated the site since Belmonte hit the bricks, was not open today even if I had wanted to spend cash there. The take-away might have enraged me, but what outright scandalised me as a child was that the mysterious door once adorned with that bright, colourful LEGO insignia had been replaced by an adult shop – as far from a kids toy shop as was commercially possible. Originally L.B. Williams’ Adult Book Exchange, today it’s the far more generic Hurstville Adult Shop.
Toyworld limps on, mostly in country locations. I swear, every country town I’ve ever visited has had a Toyworld. Why? And while I’m asking unanswerable questions: what was behind the door back when it had the LEGO sign on it? What did Alf Broome do next? Just who was L.B. Williams? Perhaps we’ll never know. But Alf, if you’ve Googled yourself and have ended up here, I want you to know something. Back in 1991 you may have been “the man in the wrong place, at the wrong time, in the wrong business”, but in 1989, when I went in and was gifted those Ghostbusters, your shop was the world to me. And this is just my story – imagine the number of kids who would have left that purple shop happier than they’d ever been. Heck, reader, it might have been YOU. That kind of thing might not have been able to pay rent, staff wages or stock prices, but it does guarantee your immortality, Alf. You’re welcome.
It’s cool when things like this happen. As you’ve read above, I presented my case on the flimsiest bit of evidence, but Your Honour, I now present to the court…EXHIBIT B.
When the building behind it was demolished, it allowed for a prime view of the back of Chuan’s Kitchen. Why should this matter? Let’s take a closer look…
Oh, what’s that? I can’t quite make it out…CLOSER STILL!
Boom. There it is. Today. You could go and see it right now. At some point in the Toyworld saga, they thought to put up this logo on the reverse side of their building. Why?
Perhaps at the time the Liquor Legends building wasn’t there, providing uninterrupted views of the beaming purple signage. Maybe the signwriters were doing a two-for-one deal and the owner was going to get his money’s worth, damn dammit. Or maybe the truth is far more sinister… Either way, it took the demolition of the bottle shop (all in the name of progress) to unearth this treasure. Within each seed, there is the promise of a flower. And within each death, no matter how big or small, there is always a new life. A new beginning.
Toys R Us was coming. The American toy giant had lingered on the horizon of the Australian retail scene since 1984, when it had first ventured overseas. Now, in 1993, Toys R Us had made its intentions to establish itself in Australia very clear. In a panic, and desperate to beat Toys R Us to the punch, Coles Myer set up their own chain of toy stores that attempted to outdo the American company in every conceivable way; a ‘category killer’. It wasn’t the first time Coles Myer had employed the tactic: in the same year, it had established Officeworks, basing it on the US stationery chain Office Depot. To give you an idea of just how contrived the whole concept was, here’s a 1993 ad preempting the World 4 Kids launch. If you can look past the kid’s stylish fashion, note the cynical overuse of the dinosaur to ride the success of the year’s biggest film.
I can still remember the hype surrounding World 4 Kids at the time of its launch. It was relentless. The Bankstown Square location was enormous, taking up an entire floor. To a kid, it was mind-blowing. They had video games available to try everywhere around the shop. They had aisles – not just a few shelves, like Grace Bros, but aisles – of action figures. They even had a ‘kids entry gate’ as an alternative to the regular entrance. Sure, it was just an archway over a little bridge, but that was for YOU! You weren’t meant to walk in the normal way like the grown-ups! This wasn’t just some toy department of a bigger shop. There was no threat of being dragged off to look at clothes or other boring stuff. It was ALL TOYS.
The launch of World 4 Kids didn’t stop Toys R Us from opening, and the closest store to the Bankstown World 4 Kids was at Hurstville. As expected, the Toys R Us store blew World 4 Kids away: it was two-storey, they had more of everything, and the name explicitly promised toys, rather than merely alluding to them in the case of World 4 Kids, which sounds like it could easily have been one of those lame play centres with the ball rooms.
1993 was about the start of the last big era for toys. By the end of the 90s, video games had eclipsed toys by a wide margin. Also by the end of the 90s, World 4 Kids was a world about to end. The company had bombed hard in the wake of Toys R Us, haemorrhaging millions of dollars each year it was open. By the end, it was losing $36m a year, and cost Coles Myer more than $200m during its short lifespan. World 4 Kids, supposed to be the successor to K-Mart’s dominance of the toy market prior to 1993, closed in 2002, and the brand name was absorbed back into K-Mart, which adopted it as the name of its toy department.
This particular World 4 Kids took over the floorspace of Venture, itself formerly Waltons Department Store (but more on that another time), so by failing miserably, it was only carrying on the strong tradition established by those two brands. Where the one store once took up the entire floor, a chemist, the Reject Shop and Best & Less have taken up residence. Immediately following World 4 Kids’ departure, a JB Hifi was set up in its place, but in a rare move for JB it was closed a few years later. Even Toys R Us is struggling these days, with the Hurstville location having long since been reduced to just one floor.
The only evidence that World 4 Kids, the place that meant the world to so many kids in 1993, was ever a part of Bankstown Square is the faint afterimage of its sign on the outside facade of the building, along the Appian Way. Yesterday’s great hope is now just a stain on the wall. It’s a stark reminder that no matter how personally a store may appeal to you, it’s always business. After all, that’s the way of the World.