Talbot’s Toyland Closing After 66 Years in San Mateo: Another Victim of Internet Shopping

After sixty-six years in the same location, Talbot’s Toyland in downtown San Mateo, California is sadly closing its doors for good. But the closing is decidedly not good given that this is happening to what has long been the go-to toy and hobby store, here, in this high-tech mecca known as Silicon Valley.

When Talbot’s first opened its doors in 1953, I was a thirteen-year old lad in the eighth grade living within three miles of downtown San Mateo. Talbot’s Toyland quickly became my other go-to downtown location – a welcome addition to San Mateo’s long-time local hobby shop, Hobby Haven. Hobby Haven was owned and operated for many years by Howard Yonkers and his wife. Yonkers catered to all ages and ranks of model airplane builders and model rail enthusiasts. The Yonkers’ little shop was also located on B Street (and First Avenue), several blocks across the downtown from Talbot’s. Many were the occasions during those early years when I excitedly hopped on my bicycle with a few dollars in my pocket, cycled via the Third Avenue overpass over the 101 freeway (known then as the Bayshore Highway), and headed downtown. There were always plenty of desirable model airplane kits on the shelves at Talbot’s and Hobby Haven, models whose aura was literally “eating a hole in my young pocket.”

Talbot’s Closing, the Changing Nature of Downtowns,
and the Evolution of Our Shopping Habits

Talbot’s Toyland in the very early years

Downtown San Mateo in the nineteen-fifties was idyllic in so many ways. Even though my sister and I lived on the “wrong side” of the Bayshore Highway back then, our family of four realized we were fortunate to be so close to the downtown and the western foothills of San Mateo. Looking back in time from this new year of 2020 with the clarity of 20-20 hindsight, we could not have fully appreciated, then, just how wonderful life and living was in San Mateo in the nineteen-fifties – even for families like ours living on tight budgets with little extra money.

Today, I am constantly reminded of the stark contrast between present-day San Mateo and the downtown environs of my boyhood in the nineteen-fifties. One particular recollection surfaces every time we travel north to spend an afternoon, there with our daughter and her family. As was true back then, the two major streets leading to and through the downtown are Third and Fourth Avenues. At any time of the day, the traffic into town on Third and out of town on Fourth is continuous, fast, and heavy. Today, whenever we leave the downtown to drive home, we take Fourth Avenue for the short hop to the 101 freeway. I recall very well the days when I and a few of my friends played touch-football in the middle of Fourth Avenue with only an occasional passing car halting play! With so many more people living in and around San Mateo today, the days of motoring into downtown and casually swinging into a parking space in front of one’s destination are at once an amusing and troubling recollection.

Today, Talbot’s Toyland is closing after sixty-six years of exemplary retailing to the residents of San Mateo. Hobby Haven disappeared many, many years ago, and downtown San Mateo has, like so many now-older downtowns in the region, morphed into numerous hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants and food-bars. The images of the old, iconic downtown highlights remain only in photographs and the memories of those of us who were there back then: Stately old St. Matthews Catholic Church in the heart of downtown, Sherman Clay for pianos, music, and records, Foreman’s Camera on Fourth Ave. for everything photographic, elegant Blum’s Ice Cream/Creamery on Fourth Ave., home of the “banana-bonanza,” the venerable Benjamin Franklin Hotel on Third Ave., the San Mateo movie theatre right next to the Ben Franklin, Levy Bros. department store on Fourth Ave., the Baywood movie Theatre on B Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues, to name a few. These were but a handful of the landmarks whose presence truly defined the nature of such an ideal, young, and prospering downtown.

It is fascinating for me to still occasionally discover a small remaining storefront, or section thereof, which awakens long-held memories of downtown San Mateo in her glory days. Central Park, located on Fifth Avenue and El Camino Real, is still much as it was back then. The spacious baseball field with its green outfield and its bleachers, known then as “Fitzgerald Field,” is virtually unchanged as is the venerable, black wrought-iron fence that has long separated the ball field and the park itself from busy El Camino Real. El Camino is that storied artery which traverses the better part of the San Francisco Peninsula, north to south. The name translated from Spanish reads, “The Highway of Kings.”

I recall sitting in the bleachers of Fitzgerald Field and watching Dan Lacy’s varsity baseball team from nearby San Mateo High School play ball in Central Park. I myself roamed right field as a (very) occasional substitute outfielder on the San Mateo Lions summer league baseball team in 1955. I also recall seeing Howard Yonkers, the afore-mentioned owner of nearby Hobby Haven, fly his fantastic, U-control, dyna-jet powered, large-scale model of the De Havilland Vampire in the middle of the outfield, there. Yes, San Mateo still evokes many special memories!

Shopping Today in the Amazon Jungle

The changing nature of downtown in cities like San Mateo all-across the country can be directly attributed to the effects of internet technology. High-speed communications/inventory management made possible by computers along with the rapid delivery of goods made possible by high-speed, economical air travel have transformed the way we shop. The economy inherent in Amazon’s internet storefront has altered forever that quaint and comforting nature of the downtown “general store” and the personal touch to shopping which naturally devolves from a first-hand relationship with the proprietor and sales-people who own and operate the business. Big department store chains like Sears, J.C. Penny, Macys and the Emporium have fallen victim to the economy and the convenience that the internet offers shoppers. But everything in this world has its price, and for the shopper that means being largely on one’s own when it comes to finding the best product for the money or obtaining detailed information on a potential purchase. Unskilled, part-time, and generally uninvested labor now sparsely populates the cash registers of mall shopping sites. Good luck trying to locate anyone on the floor who really knows their merchandise. Often, there is no one in sight to even ring-up a sale!

Support Your Local Merchants!

My wife and I make it a point to do this on a regular basis. When browsing at our local bookstore, we often discover what looks like a must-read and, as often as not, we purchase the book there even though it might cost several dollars more than the same book on Amazon. No, we do not have money to throw around, and, yes, we often purchase from Amazon because, like most folks, we need to watch our spending. Buying from our local bookseller is our way of saying thanks: thanks for providing a cozy, downtown venue in which to browse, and thanks for putting before our eyes a book that we might otherwise never have discovered!

We patronized Talbot’s Toyland in recent years with the same attitude: trying to do our part to keep them viable in downtown San Mateo. Clearly, not enough folks had the same approach to buying. The last two years saw a distinct fall-off in “foot-traffic” in the store which was noticeable in a store as large and complete as Talbot’s. This past Christmas, we were in the store on a Thursday evening two weeks before Christmas buying a few gifts for our grandsons. We were virtually the only shoppers for the half-hour we were in the store. I knew, then, that the end was near for this iconic San Mateo landmark. The store’s closing was announced soon after the holidays. Seemingly, like a law of nature, all good things must end!

At play, along with the economics and shopping convenience associated with Talbot’s closing, there is also the undeniable fact that the favorite toys of today’s young set have changed drastically from the toys we seniors loved in our youth.

Above: a display case in Talbot’s hobby department taken several years ago. These exquisite die-cast World War II warbirds rather quickly disappeared from Talbot’s display cases as us old-timers who remembered them began to “die-off,” as explained to me by Talbot’s staff! These iconic propeller-driven airplanes were soon replaced on display by jet aircraft and star-wars type “galactic fighters!”


My World War II British Spitfire –
purchased at Talbot’s during the store’s transition to the jet-age!

The large World War I Fokker Triplane which hung there for years

Last, but not least, recent years found Talbot’s selection of Lionel electric trains to be a mere shadow of that in the earlier days – as pictured, here!

Sadly, the trend toward present-day realities convinced me long ago that Talbot’s ultimate demise was not a question of if, but a question of when.

Thank you, Talbot’s Toyland, for the great years and the fond memories!

Is Life Becoming Too Complex? The Devil Is in the Details….! Can We Keep Up?

Details matter in this life, and they demand our attention – increasingly so. It is becoming impossible to live under illusions such as, “Details are confined mainly to the realm of specialists, like the computer programmer and the watchmaker.” The need for “attention to detail” on the part of everyman has never been greater.

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I’ve been around for a while, now – over seventy-six years. Given all those years and, with the detached attitude of an impartial observer, I have reached some general conclusions regarding technology, time, and our quality of life, today.

Conclusion #1:
The opportunity for living a comfortable, meaningful, and rewarding life has never been greater – especially in this United States of America. We have so many choices today in this society, for better or for worse.

Conclusion #2:
The veracity of conclusion #1 is due to the positive influence of science and technology on our lives. Today’s information age has delivered the world, indeed, the universe (and Amazon, too) to our desktops and living rooms.

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It is true that computers and the internet are virtually indispensable, now.  However, the tools and the technology of the scientific/information age change continually, at an ever more rapid pace. Can we humans continue to keep pace with it all without making painful choices and sacrifices in our lives? Have computer problems ever driven you nuts? Do we have too many choices and opportunities now, thanks to the internet and stores like Walmart? How often have you shopped for something specific in the supermarket or on Amazon and been bewildered by the blizzard of choices which accost you thanks to high-tech marketing? Even choosing a hair shampoo poses a challenge for today’s shopper.

Conclusion #3:
Scientific knowledge and the rapid technological progress it spawns have become, universally, a 50/50 proposition for the human race. The reality suggests that for every positive gain in our lives brought about by our growing technology base, there is, unrelentingly, a negative factor to be overcome as well – a price to be paid. There is virtually a one-to-one correspondence at play – seemingly like an unspoken law of nature which always holds sway – much like the influence of gravitational attraction! In familiar parlance, “There is no free lunch in life: Rather, a price to paid for everything!”

The best example possible of this contention? Consider Einstein’s revelation in 1905 that mass and energy are interchangeable: e=mc2. This, the most famous equation in science, opened not only new frontiers in physics, but also the possibility of tremendous industrial power – at minimal cost. On the negative side, along with nuclear power plants, we now have nuclear weapons capable, in one day, of essentially ending life on this planet – thanks to that same simple equation. As for usable, nuclear-generated power, the potential price for such energy has been dramatically demonstrated in several notable cases around the globe over recent decades.

Need another example? How about the information technology which enables those handy credit cards which make purchasing “goodies” so quick and easy? On the negative side, how about the punishing cost of credit for account balances not promptly paid? More disturbing is the fact that such technology in the hands of internet criminals makes one’s private financial information so vulnerable, today. I found out the hard way, recently, that just changing your hacked credit card for a new one does not necessarily end your problems with unauthorized charges! The price in real money paid by society for foiling technology savvy ne-er do-wells is huge, in the billions of dollars every year.

Conclusion #4
Society, today, seems to discount the wisdom inherent in the old, familiar phrase, “The devil is in the details!” We are easily enticed by the lure of “user-friendly” computers and devices, and indeed, most are generally well-designed to be just that – considering what they can do for us. But today’s scientists and engineers fully understand the profundity of that “devil is in the details” contention as they burrow deeper and deeper into nature’s secrets. The lawyer and the business man fully understand the message conveyed given the importance of carefully reading “the fine print” embedded in today’s legal documents and agreements. How many of us take (or can even afford) the time to read all the paperwork/legalese which accompanies the purchase of a new automobile or a house! Increasingly, we seem unable/unwilling to keep up with the burgeoning demands imposed by the exponential growth of detail in our lives, and that is not a healthy trend.

I am convinced and concerned that many of us are in way over our heads when it comes to dealing with the more sophisticated aspects of today’s personal computers, and these systems are becoming increasingly necessary for families and seniors merely trying to getting by in today’s internet world. Even those of us with engineering/computer backgrounds have our hands full keeping up with the latest developments and devices: I can personally attest to that! The devil IS in the details, and the details involved in computer science are growing exponentially. Despite the frequently quoted phrase “user-friendly interface,” I can assure you that the complexity lurking just below that user-friendly, top onion-skin-layer of your computer or iPhone is very vast, indeed, and that is why life gets sticky and help-entities like the Geek Squad will never lack for stymied customers.

Make no mistake: It is not merely a question of “Can we handle the specific complexities of operating/maintaining our personal computers?” Rather, the real question is, “Can we handle all the complexities/choices which the vast capabilities of the computer/internet age have spawned?”  

Remember those “user manuals?” Given the rapid technological progress of recent decades, the degree of choice/complexity growth is easily reflected by the growing size of user manuals, those how-to instructions for operating our new autos, ovens, cooktops, washing machines, and, now, phones and computers. Note: The “manuals” for phones and computers are now so complex that printed versions cannot possibly come with these products. Ironically, there are virtually no instructions “in the box.” Rather, many hundreds of data megabytes now construct dozens of computer screens which demonstrate the devices’ intricacies on-line. These software “manuals” necessarily accommodate the bulk and the constantly changing nature of the product itself. Long gone are the old “plug it in and press this button to turn it on” product advisories. More “helpful” product options result in significantly more complexity! Also gone are the “take it in for repair” days. My grandfather ran a radio repair shop in Chicago seventy years ago. Today, it is much cheaper and infinitely more feasible to replace rather than repair anything electronic.

An appropriate phrase to describe today’s burgeoning technologies is “exponential complexity.” What does that really mean and what does it tell us about our future ability to deal with the coming “advantages” of technology which will rain down upon us? I can illustrate what I mean.

Let us suppose that over my seventy-six years, the complexity of living in our society has increased by 5% per year – a modest assumption given the rapid technological gains in recent decades. Using a very simple “exponential” math calculation, at that rate, life for me today is over 40 times more complex than it was for my parents the day I was born!

To summarize: Although many of the technological gains made over recent decades were intended to open new opportunities and to make life easier for us all, they have imposed upon us a very large burden in the form of the time, intelligence, and intellectual energy required to understand the technology and to use it both efficiently and wisely. Manual labor today is much minimized; the intellectual efforts required to cope with all the newest technology is, indeed, very significant and time-consuming. There is a price to be paid…for everything.

The major question: At what point does technology cease to help us as human beings and begin to subjugate us to the tyranny of its inherent, inevitable and necessary details? The realm in which the details live is also home to the devil.

The devil tempts. The burgeoning details and minutia in today’s society act to corrode our true happiness. We should be cautious lest we go too far up the technology curve and lose sight of life’s simpler pleasures… like reading a good book in a quiet place – cell phones off and out of reach. The noise and bustle of Manhattan can appear endlessly intoxicating to the visitor, but such an environment is no long-term substitute for the natural sounds and serenity of nature at her finest. The best approach to living is probably a disciplined and wisely proportioned concoction of both worlds.

The above recipe for true happiness involves judicious choices, especially when it comes to technology and all the wonderful opportunities it offers. Good choices can make a huge difference. That is the ultimate message of this post.

As I write this, I have recently made some personal choices: I am redoubling my efforts to gain a more solid grasp of Windows 10 and OS X on my Mac. Despite the cautionary message of this post regarding technology, I see this as an increasingly necessary (and interesting) challenge in today’s world. This is a choice I have made. I have, however, put activities like FaceBook aside and have become much more choosey about time spent on the internet.

My parting comment and a sentiment which I hope my Grandkids will continue to heed: “So many good books; so little quality time!”

Back-to-School Time: Have You Nurtured Your Student’s Curiosity Lately?

96497_Kubitz_cvr.inddYes, it is back-to-school time for many of the world’s youngsters. In America, late August and early September is when students return to school to meet new teachers who will be entrusted by parents to help educate their children.

Have you, as parents, guardians, or mentors nurtured your student’s curiosity this summer? My book on education, learning, and mentoring suggests that successful learning and top student performance stem from a healthy curiosity – the desire to know and understand the world around us. Such a “learning attitude” (or lack thereof) is influenced primarily by the home environment and the adults at home – not by the students’ school and teachers. Equipped with a good “learning attitude” acquired in the home, students prosper at school; without a proper attitude, many disinterested youngsters flounder in class while being easily distracted by social media and the associated electronic connectedness so prevalent today.

Sadly, many of these children will, in the course of their schooling, waste the most precious opportunity that society will ever offer them – a good education and a pathway to lifelong learning. It need not be that way, however.

My book is a hands-on, how-to manual for parenting/mentoring with the end goal of insuring school success for students – especially in science and mathematics.

Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning, is available from Amazon for $14.95. This link will take you directly to Amazon and the book.

www.amazon.com/