A fond farewell to FAO Schwartz

Not everyone has heard of FAO Schwartz, but everyone has seen the movie Big. In that movie, there’s a scene where Tom Hanks plays Heart & Soul in a duet with co-star Robert Loggia on the store’s large floor piano. That whole section of the film set in the toy store is in New York’s legendary FAO Schwartz. In simpler terms, it’s New York’s equivalent to Hamleys.

Founded in 1862, FAO Schwarz is the oldest toy store in the US and has its flagship store on Fifth Avenue. Or at least it did. Now, as a result of skyrocketing rents in Manhattan, the iconic outlet that takes up the first two floors of the General Motors Building is closing in just two weeks. Rumours abound that its parent company Toys “R” Us Inc will simply move the brand to another location in New York, but nothing has been confirmed and even the staff we spoke to were uncertain of their future.

1988 movie Big

“Chopsticks!” Tom Hanks plays a duet with co-star Robert Loggia in the 1988 movie Big

Chances are that if I’m anywhere near FAO Schwarz — which sits behind the glass cube of Apple’s ostentatious flagship 5th Avenue store and is probably the reason I’m in that neck of the woods — I’ll pop in to drool over the Lego. It’s maybe a tiny bit smaller than Hamleys, each floor is about twice the size, but there aren’t quite as many.

It was originally founded in 1862 under the name “Toy Bazaar” by German immigrant Frederick August Otto Schwarz, in Baltimore, where he and his brothers retailed toys from a fancy-goods store. In 1870, Schwarz opened a New York City location known as the “Schwarz Toy Bazaar” at 765 Broadway and over the next 20 years it moved three more times around Manhattan as it continued to grow, but it wasn’t until 1897 that it came to be known as FAO Schwarz.

The company itself has been bought and sold a number of times throughout its lifetime and it finally settled into its current, 5th Avenue address in 1968. Throughout the 1990s, new branches were opened across the US and within 10 years the company had over 40 locations. They have however, all but disappeared and this is now the only one left.

“Fiddlesticks!” Lisa and Scott attempt to play the very same giant piano 27 years later

The store operates a little-known tour, called the Toy Soldier Tour, every morning between 9am and 10am, before the doors open to the public. It’s basically aimed at kids, but the chance to be shown around the shop floor Willy Wonka-style while it’s utterly empty is too much fun to miss, especially since in about three weeks it will no longer exist. We were greeted at the side entrance on 58th Street and introduced to Roy who, dressed in his trademark toy soldier costume, never once broke character and is clearly man who loves his job. Out of the 20 or so attendees that morning, Lisa and I were the only adults there without children attached and since most of the parents were happy to just have a few precious moments of peace and quiet, we got taken around with all the kids, which suited me just fine.

We were told of the history of the store, how the iconic clock used to hang over the entrance instead of over the escalator, which is where it is now. We were allowed to help ourselves to a bag of candy in FAO Schweetz and we were shown the Muppet making workshop, which allows customers the ability to create their very own Muppet by choosing from a selection of bodies and facial features, hair pieces and outfits. Upstairs we were shown around the various departments, including Star Wars toys, the Marvel toy collection, Hello Kitty and my favourite, Lego. And it is here, upstairs that the now-world famous giant piano can be found.

Back in 1988 when the movie Big was made, the one-of-a-kind floor piano was on the ground floor since a working film set had to be created within the shop, so logistics like available space and natural lighting had to be considered. So for just two more weeks it will be upstairs and unless you jump on one of these special tours pretty damn quick, you’ll have to fight with hoards of other eager shoppers to have a go.