At school, I used sit at my desk on a Friday afternoon, stare out of the window and daydream about toy shops. Toy shops were my happy place. Whenever I felt stressed or anxious as a boy, I would let my mind take me to the nearest toy shop it could conjure up. Real life toy shops were also pretty good, too!
On the long walk home from school on a Friday afternoon, all I could think about were three things that Saturday ahead might bring: my Transformers comic arriving in the morning, a potential trip to a toy shop in the afternoon and, just maybe, a pizza for tea in the evening.
Having divorced parents meant that weekends would usually go one of two ways. My mum would sometimes take me shopping to buy sensible things like shoes for school or a new PE kit. My dad would sometimes take me shopping to buy non-sensible things like toys and comics.
I can’t remember every instance of visiting a toy shop and walking out again with a Transformers toy in tow, but a few particular shops and special visits spring to mind when I think back.
The two-storey newsagent in Newark on Trent
This was actually the place my mum bought my very first Transformers toy, Optimus Prime, in 1984. Visits were frequent here and, downstairs, the shop sported an utterly massive toy department.
While my mum would browse elsewhere, I would head straight to the Transformers, grab each one in turn off the shelf and memorise as best I could everything on the package from the boxart to the tech specs and back again. (The same could be said of all department stories, actually. I was always supposed to be shopping for clothes or school supplies but I would “suddenly” need to use the toilet and sneak off to the toy department.)
It wasn’t often I would actually get a Transformer, however. My mum’s tactic was to see what took my interest and either come back without me or somehow buy it in secret and keep it for a birthday or Christmas.
Zodiac Toys in King’s Lynn
On the weekends that I spent with my dad, we would almost always pop into the town centre of King’s Lynn on the Saturday morning and head for Zodiac Toys. If it was a normal weekend, he would often* get me a Mini-Autobot or a Special Teams limb or equivalent. If it was my birthday or before/after Christmas, he would get me two or three boxed Transformers toy such as a Headmaster or a Targetmaster. We’d then go for a burger for lunch while, with greasy fingers, I would point out all the cool stuff the new Transformer looked like it would do when I got it home.
(*Unless my wicked stepmother was present, but more on that another time!)
Jolly Giant in Glasgow
Every summer we would take the train up to Scotland to visit family. Visiting family meant cash from aunts, uncles, grandparents and so on. And cash meant Transformers. In 1987, my great uncle drove us to Jolly Giant in Glasgow so I could spend some of my holiday money.
Jolly Giant was the biggest toy shop I’d ever been to at that point. It was overwhelming, absolutely thrilling. It was the first time I’d seen that year’s range and I remember taking ages to choose which new Transformer to get. I eventually ended up picking Apeface and the (British) movie poster to Transformers: The Movie.
Beatties in Nottingham
Beatties always seemed to have the most comprehensive selections of Transformers. I used to spend hours in there. It was also a model shop (which my dad appreciated) so he would go an look at all the Airfix stuff while I looked at the Transformers. For my birthday in 1988, he got me Powermaster Optimus Prime and I remember being so excited to finally find one after spending the whole summer looking for one. Looking back, I think this was actually my fondest ever memory of a toy shop visit.
Argos, Woolworths, WHSmith, and others
Not every shopping trip meant a visit to a toy shop, but there were always toy departments in other shops to consider. Woolworths, especially, always came through as it was the only place open on a Sunday at the time.
And nothing would beat the anticipation in Argos of waiting for a Transformer to come down the conveyor belt from the back as I waited eagerly for my collection number to be called!
WHSmith always had a small selection of Transformers and the branch in Newark was where I bought my first Transformers toy with my own money.
There were numerous other independent toy shops and department stores that I would come across on school trips or days out, too.
Ironically I’ve visited more toy shops (in the UK and abroad) as an adult than I ever did as a kid. But those childhood visits were the most special.
Not every trip yielded treasure, of course. It all depended on which of my parents I was with at the time. But that didn’t matter; they joy was in the visit itself, a short but wonderful trip to my happy place.
May your luster never dull, and your wires never cross!
PS: While I have no photographs myself of toy shops from my childhood, you should visit this site which features in-shop pictures of Zodiac Toys: https://zodiactoys.wordpress.com/instore-displays/