July 15, 2015
FAO Schwarz Closing: The Greatest Toy Store in the World Once Was in NoMad
With FAO Schwarz closing, the legendary toy store has been on the minds of New Yorkers and travelers alike. While the past few generations associate this store with its Central Park location, the history of the establishment runs right through NoMad.
If you live or work in the NoMad District, you probably pass the parking lot on the north side of 23rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue several times a week. On such a busy street with wall-to-wall high rises, the parking lot space is particularly noticeable and prompts the question “Something must have been there; what was it?”
From April 28, 1897 until 1931, this spot was the location of FAO Schwarz, now the oldest toy store in the United States. At the height of the Gilded Age, this was the northern end of Ladies Mile and the center of fine shopping. The north and east sides of Madison Square Park were lined with the homes of the best families in New York City, and restaurants, theatres, and world class hotels ran up Broadway from 23rd to 34th Streets. It was the logical place for a store offering the finest, one-of-a-kind toys available in the country.
Frederick August Otto Schwarz, an immigrant from Westphalia, Germany, arrived in the United States in 1856 and settled in Baltimore. He joined two older brothers who had already established themselves as importers of high-end toys and luxury goods from Europe. With his brothers, Frederick founded “Toy Bazar” (sic) in 1862. He moved to New York City in 1870 and opened the Schwarz “Toy Bazar” at 765 Broadway — a location that placed him at the center of what was then New York’s most fashionable shopping district, before it moved up to Union Square and then Madison Square.
A clever marketing strategist from the outset, Schwarz changed the way people shopped by creating a theatrical experience to showcase his merchandise — a trait that the store has carried forward to the present day and one of the reasons its General Motors store has always been a must-see tourist attraction. In fact, it was this type of merchandising that led Schwarz to introduce the first live “department store” Santa Claus in December 1875. Santa became a Schwarz fixture every holiday season thereafter and inspired other stores, including Macy’s, to offer their own versions.
In 1876, the company issued its first catalog, attracting an even wider consumer base and creating one of the first mail order businesses in the country. The same year Schwarz moved the business uptown, to larger quarters at 42 East Fourteenth Street. By the end of the decade he was reputed to be the largest toy dealer in the world.
In 1889, Schwarz added his initials to newspaper advertisements, identifying the store as “FAO Schwarz,” although the “Toy Bazar“ named continued until the move to 39-41 West 23rd Street.
In 1897, he moved farther uptown, to 39-41 West Twenty-third Street, a double building comprising seven floors with a block-long basement used to store inventory. Adults as well as children were enticed by his elegant displays of exquisitely crafted merchandise that included authentically detailed toy soldiers, handmade dolls with elaborate wardrobes in mini-Vuitton trunks, models of fully rigged sailing vessels, exotic stuffed animals covered with real fur, working reproductions of trains and carriages, and a host of other miniature replicas of the adult world.
Despite growth in department store toy departments, Schwarz maintained sales levels because of the unique quality of the toys he offered. The Schwarz store was always in a class by itself, without competition. By the time of Schwarz’s death, his company was offering more than sixteen thousand items.
In 1931, the family moved the store to 745 Fifth Avenue, yet again chasing the heart of Manhattan’s most upscale shopping district and later still across the street to the General Motors Building at 767 Fifth Avenue. In 1963, the family sold their last share in the business and the company went through many owners until, in 2009, it was purchased by the retailing giant Toys “R” Us, which continues to operate as a separate chain of stores. Even in the late twentieth century, an estimated 30 percent of FAO Schwarz’s offerings could not be found elsewhere and many of its wares were purchased by adults for their own pleasure and amusement.
In May of 2015, FAO Schwarz announced its closing in the General Motors Building, and there has been no announcement yet as to where it will reopen. Perhaps it is time for it to return to NoMad, where once again premium shopping, fine restaurants, world-class hotels, and well-to-do families are making their homes and tourists are filling the streets — maybe in the NoMad Center at the Virgin Hotel?