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!

Toyland, Toyland – Little Girl and Boy Land….Wishfully, Forever!

Talbot's Bus. Card Hdr

The $50 gift certificate from Talbot’s Toyland in San Mateo, California had been burning a hole in my “pocket” for several months – reminiscent of my boyhood enthusiasms. A gift from my daughter Ginny’s family, I just redeemed it for a 1/72 scale, Corgi die-cast WWII British Spitfire airplane – and a beautiful little model she is!

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This is the airplane that saved England in WWII by winning the Battle of Britain in the skies overhead. I knew about all of that, but a recent PBS documentary really drove home to me just how heroic and crucial the aerial combat over England at the opening of the war was in deterring Hitler’s Luftwaffe from devastating the country.

A Senior Citizen Lost in a Toy Store?

Yes, a toy store like Talbot’s can still thrill a seventy-four year old guy with its offerings. I have been a customer of Talbot’s in downtown San Mateo since 1955, the year it first opened its doors – in the very same location! I was fifteen years old, living a few miles from the downtown and still building model airplanes, buying plastic kits from Talbot’s and more substantial models from the venerable Hobby Haven several blocks across town. Now, sixty years later, Hobby Haven has long-since disappeared, but the greatly-expanded Talbot’s continues today as THE place in the entire region to shop for electric trains, RC airplanes and cars, educational toys, bikes, and everything else in between.

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Things ARE changing, however. Many old-timers are no longer with us. As we disappear, so does the demand for airplanes that we knew so well from our youth, replaced in the young’s affections by space-age toys and conveyances from the post Star Wars era. I knew this to be true after noticing a relatively slow turnover of the “warbird” stock in the brilliantly illuminated display cases at Talbot’s. The long-term, friendly, and knowledgeable staff at Talbot’s confirmed that business in WWII aircraft has slowed considerably. My little Spitfire model had been on display for at least a few months, it seems, begging for an old-timer to come along, take it home, and lavish it with affection! I decided to be that “hero,” equally because I love the model’s graceful lines, its beautifully crafted detail, and because it is so historically relevant to the great history of WWII.

To Fly and Fight_1I have many personal accounts sitting on my bookshelves from the men who flew such aircraft in the war; their stories project unparalleled drama and adventure in a time and setting which can never be repeated. Unlike today’s trend toward automated drone warfare, these men actually climbed into a cold cockpit on some far away airfield, fired-up their coughing, belching engines, and taxied off  to today’s mission and, often, into oblivion. Clarence E. “Bud” Anderson, one of America’s greatest aces flying the storied P-51 Mustang fighter expressed it succinctly, yet poignantly, in his fine book:

 

“Staying alive was no simple thing in the skies over Europe in the spring of 1944. A lot of men couldn’t. It was a bad thing to dwell on if you were a fighter pilot, and so we told ourselves we were dead men and lived for the moment with no thought of the future at all. It wasn’t too difficult. Lots of us had no future and everyone knew it.”

Today’s allure for youngsters involves Star Wars style spacecraft dripping with laser cannons and chock full of presumed, computer-based systems! That modern allure and fascination seems no match for the real-life drama of the “stick and rudder” men wearing leather helmets who flew their machines in both World Wars – no match, at least, for us old-timers. Those men survived to fly yet another day thanks only to their unconventional courage and skill at maneuvering to get the enemy’s “tail” within the line of fire of their machine guns, all the while insuring that another of the enemy was not closing in on their tail. Skill, daring, and “just plain luck” were each factors in the survival equation. But that was then, and today belongs to the young, though I cannot help but wonder if, in their old-age, today’s youngsters will view their boyhood passions in the same dramatic human light as we do. Perhaps so.

For me, this post is a collage of mixed messages: The wonder still present for all ages and interests, and both sexes (Talbot’s has a great doll department) in a really fine toy store; the fleeting vision over passing time of the receding culture which so influenced our childhood; our changing attitudes and outlooks; and, finally, the joy of still encountering a surviving link to our fondest personal memories and recollections. Talbot’s sixty year tenure and enduring influence in downtown San Mateo represents an uncommon, present-day reminder of who we were and what life was like, many years ago. I will think of all this whenever I gaze at my latest gem from Talbot’s.

Talbot's Storefront