After more than 150 years of business, F.A.O. Schwarz — the famed high-end toy store located across from the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue — this week closed its doors for good. Though the day was marked by a good deal of mourning, with generations of teary-eyed New Yorkers stopping by to pay their respects, the occasion also served as the beginning of a new legacy: Mary Arnold Toys on the Upper East Side is now the oldest continuously run toy store in the United States.
But while the shop officially nabbed that title from Schwarz on Wednesday, the truth is that it has been decades since the two stores were really in the same business. In 2009, Schwarz was bought by the multibillion-dollar retailer Toys “R” Us, and even before that the company had a reputation for selling $12,000 treehouses and $15,000 toy Mercedes to the rich and spoiled. (Toys “R” Us has said that it is currently looking for a new location for the store.)
“F.A.O. is an icon for the length of time they’ve been in business, [but] honestly I don’t think of F.A.O. as a competitor to us. Mostly tourists used to go there, not the East Side people so much,” Ezra Ishayik, the 76-year-old owner of Mary Arnold, tells the Voice. “Obviously big stores and the internet have been taking away [from our business], but we’ve been lucky that we have customers that are extremely loyal to us.”
While Schwarz will be forever linked to the movie Big — specifically the scene in which Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia skip across the store’s giant light-up piano — Mary Arnold Toys has often been compared to the homey mom-and-pop bookstore Shop Around the Corner, from another Hanks film, You’ve Got Mail.
Founded in 1931, the store has been supplying the children of the Upper East Side with traditional games and toys for more than 84 years. Though Ishayik and his brother bought Mary Arnold in 1983 after immigrating to New York from Iraq — and relocated the shop farther up Lexington Avenue in the 1990s — the store maintains some of its old-world nostalgia even today.
Inside the shop, narrow, winding aisles still overflow with mounds of dolls, action figures, and remote
control cars. There’s a “book nook” for children to sit down and read. A “garage” in back is filled with bikes and scooters, and there is an area specifically reserved for playing dress-up. In 2015, it’s the rare establishment that stocks more Legos than video games, and the store has been using the same gingerbread man wrapping paper year-round for more than four decades.
“F.A.O. closing, it’s really sad. It’s really sad that something like this is happening. It was a great, huge toy store with all these magical products,” says Judy Ishayik, who now runs Mary Arnold Toys with her father. “With that said, I think coming here is another magical experience. It’s a little bit different, a little bit more personal, and a little bit more of a homey feel.”
When stepping in to Mary Arnold, one is greeted not by life-size toy soldiers (once a calling card of F.A.O. Schwarz), but the store’s owners themselves. Judy and Ezra are eager to answer questions about which pop-up book to get a toddler, or which robot is right for an eight-year-old. Customers who once bought presents for their children at the store now come back years later to seek counsel on gifts for their grandkids.
The personal touch is ultimately what sets the store apart and continues to keep it afloat after so many decades, even as mom-and-pop shops have become increasingly rare throughout New York City.
“We’ve been in business for 84 years and we’d love to stay here for another 84 years,” Judy says. When her father finally decides to retire, she plans to take over the family business herself. “I think small specialty stores, small businesses — the people behind the small businesses — I think that’s what makes New York special.”