Holy Crap! Remember… Johnny’s Toys?

Of course you don’t, unless you grew up in the greater Cincinnati area. But don’t stop reading! Sure, this “Holy Crap! Remember…” is about my favorite local toy store from my childhood, but it’s also a tribute to every family-owned toy store that we all loved while we were growing up.

Johnny’s Toys was special in that it was a small hometown store that carried a lot of unique, hard-to-find toys and games that you couldn’t find at Toys ‘R’ Us or K.B. Toys. Although the quality and selection of toys was great, the thing that made Johnny’s Toys extra magical was the Birthday Castle. If you were in elementary school then you knew about the Johnny’s Toys Birthday Castle. When your birthday was coming up, you would hear a hundred times, “Did you get your key yet?” It was a big deal.

The birthday card that is, in retrospect, very weird looking.

The key was a special gift from the store that was sent taped inside of a birthday card to Johnny’s Toys Birthday Club members. When you got to the store, you would show the card to one of the employees. They would lead you to a large castle nestled in the corner of the store. I’m sure that it’s not as impressive to you if you’ve never seen the Birthday Castle before, but for me, just looking at this picture makes me smile.

You would use your key to “unlock” the large, red wooden door. Thinking back, the door was never actually locked, and the key was just for show, but I don’t know of anyone who was brave enough to point that out, or to go into the castle without a key.

This is closer to the castle that I remember as a kid.

The inside of the castle wasn’t quite as magical as the outside. It was a small space with racks of red plastic bags. The racks were labeled “boy” and “girl”, and were numbered by age. The red plastic bags were opaque, and the rule was that you were supposed to just grab a bag from your assigned bin, no peeking. The toys were always cheap and were never nearly as exciting as getting the key and opening the door, but it was a free toy so it was hard to complain.

Sadly, stores like Toys ‘R’ Us began popping up in more convenient areas of town. My last visit to Johnny’s Toys was probably near my 12th birthday, which would have been the last year I got a key. Big-box toy stores had a larger selection of popular toys, and stores like Wal-Mart and Meijer began adding to their toy sections, making them a much more convenient and cheaper option for busy parents. Johnny’s Toys would often only get visited once a year to go to the Birthday Castle.

This is the "fancy" updated castle, built in 2000, and the last one to be removed.

The threat of lower prices and convenience from competitors wasn’t the only problem. A few bad business decisions also doomed the store. In 2004, after already closing the established Milford location that I frequented as a child, management decided to open a large, FAO Schwartz-inspired store at the dying Cincinnati Mills mall. The move was a bust, and the store was quickly replaced by Steve & Barry’s. I remember driving down Lila Avenue in Milford years later, sometime around 2002, and seeing my store permanently closed, although the sign was still up. A few years after that, I saw that the sign was gone.

The only remaining Johnny’s Toys store is near the original store’s site in Covington, Kentucky, however, it’s no longer the toy store that it once was. The store had moved into a larger location in 2000 in order to expand its inventory, but the change never caught on. In the following years the store slowly morphed from a retail store to an “edutainment” center, and now no longer sells toys. In 2009, the last remaining Birthday Castle was closed and removed. A Facebook group dedicated to saving the last remaining castle still exists, and has many more personal stories of the Birthday Castle.

I realize that most Panels on Pages readers won’t know about Johnny’s Toys, so I want to know what awesome hometown toy stores you remember from your childhood. What made them special? Are they still around? What’s your favorite toy store memory?

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Mary Knize, Captain Painway, "C-Pain", and formerly Mary Staggs, was Panels on Pages' May 2010 Fangirl of the Month and is a former rollergirl. When she's not busy writing, she's probably playing a video game. She also loves Wikipedia and science.

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Comments (17)

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  1. Jason Knize says:

    Besides TRU, I know we had “Child World” for a brief time in suburban Chicago. I don’t ever really remember the “Peter Panda” mascot, but I do remember the infamous PoP!- Cast FMK of Peter Panda, Geoffrey the Giraffe and the KB Soldier.

  2. Jason Knize says:

    Hmm…maybe the store I’m thinking of was ‘Children’s Palace’, which was also owned by Child World.

  3. Matt (shark) says:

    I remember Johnny’s Toys. I loved the birthday key. Growing up on the west side it was a huge thing as well. My Johnny’s Toys was off of Glenway. I think now its a CVS or something similar… Very sad… They opened a Toys R Us in the same plaza, but it was never the same

  4. mike says:

    Wow! I used to go to the Johnny’s in Greenhills. This article just blew my mind. Bravo!

  5. Cory Treadway says:

    Me and my girlfriend visted the location of the Covington Jonnys Toys. It broke our hearts to see that the inside was empty and bare. I remember fondly going to the store as a child. There just arent any good toy stores anymore. Toys R us every year becomes more and more of a joke.

  6. Venessa Arthur says:

    You brought back so many memories for me. I remember getting the key and the excitement of going to the store for the Birthday Castle. I too went to the store in Milford and when I am home for a visit it's not the same with it not being there anymore. I even told my son about Johnny's Toys and he said I had a great childhood because they don't do things like that anymore.

  7. Chenelle Sibert says:

    I remember Johnny toys in Norwood. I loved that store. I remember they had a layaway and would pick my toys out for Christmas.

  8. Rachel S says:

    I was telling a coworker who is from New York about Johnny’s Toys. I found this post from a google search and read it to her. She agrees that Johnny’s sounded amazing, and I assure her that it was! One of my favorite childhood memories. I’m sad that the castle is no longer 🙁 Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  9. katiena says:

    I want a birthday card and key for memories. …anyone know how to get one.

  10. Brian says:

    I was telling my wife about it and we decided to go to the Covington store despite having no children to buy for this Christmas. It had been 15-20 years since I had last been so, I was in for a wake up call. I knew the store moved but, we were able to find it as she caught a glimpse of the sign as we drove by. When we pulled in and headed for the door, all seemed well as the parking lot was full but, a sign on the front door explained that Johnny’s was closed. This lead me to search the internet to find more information on the closing ultimately finding this article.

    I think it says something about the significance of Johnny’s on our childhood that the computer repair shop which now operates out of the building has to place a sign on their front door explaining that Johnny’s closed two years after the fact. Toy’s R Us just isn’t the same thus, there really isn’t that quality toy store like a Johnny’s.

  11. Jenna says:

    So I’ve just woken up from a dream I had about johnnys toys. Super weird. I graduated HS in 2009 and moved to California in 2010, so I don’t get any tri state updates. I decided to google JT and see how they were doing! Your post was the first thing that popped up and I am just heartbroken. That castle in the old corner strip mall in Latonia held so many childhood memories. This seriously makes me sad. I’ll definitely be driving by next time I visit. Thank you for the update.

  12. Ann says:

    I loved Johnny’s toy store.Thinking back, I would have chosen the trip to Johnny’s over a birthday party with friends if I had to choose. Yeah, the gifts were often cheap and broken within a few days, but the experience of getting that magical key and going to the castle that was exclusively for birthday boys and girls was magical (yes, an over used term for such an experience, but it describes the experience perfectly.) Sometimes you’d get lucky with a jump rope and one year they had hula hoops. I wonder if children from this generation are too sophisticated for such wonder. They may see past all the cheap cardboard and turn their nose up at the whole experience wondering where their new Apple device is. This is just another example of how things aren’t special anymore. Trips to toy stores were reserved for Christmas and birthdays- no matter how much money your family had. You were lucky to see the inside of an amusement park one time a season or go on vacation, ever. New clothes were for back to school with the exception of a winter coat, a new pack of “day of the week” underwear, and a pair of shoes which were only purchased when the old ones were completely destroyed or too little. The Wizard of Oz made it’s appearance one time a year like The Great Pumpkin and Frosty. Candy and cake was harder to come by- in fact you would get an apple or orange in your Christmas stocking. You rarely see kids with skinned knees and scuffed shoes anymore. Hop scotch, Mexican jumping beans, sock monkeys, records, roller skates and bikes were all the rage and had been for 30 years. (I’m old, but not that old just yet. lol) Well, this little tangent was for my own trip down memory lane, but I will post it just the same. Thanks for all the memories, Johnny– and thanks, Mary, for the article.

  13. Mia says:

    I am now 15 almost 16 and I can remember the min when I finally got my key to go to the castle at johnny’s toys. I really do miss that place

  14. August says:

    Man, I’m probably just a couple years too young to get the “Birthday Castle” experience. I remember my last visit in 2008 or 2009. Shocked to find out this place closed!

  15. Peter Doran says:

    I lived in Cincinnati and was a sales rep for Fisher-Price Toys when Johnny’s was in its heyday. At the time, it was F-P’s single largest customer, and dwarfed its rivals in unit and dollar sales. The people were the best of all my customers in a three state area (Bill Martin, owner and Judy Hodge, buyer and maybe a relative of Bill’s?).
    Bill was well known in the toy industry for buying close-outs, and being a fair and honest businessman in an industry of whores.
    Bill maintained a NYC apartment, and would always see you. Judy was a bit ‘rougher’, but still a wonderful person as a human being, and to do business with. I recall at the time, which is now over 30 years ago), she would buy every single toy in Fisher-Price’s line, and had the best looking Preschool Section in America.
    Johnny’s had a very intelligent and incredibly effective marking strategy where they would print the price labels ‘high’, then in pen, cross that price off, and write in a lower price, which was the normal retail price of the items! Psychologically or subconsciously, you always thought you were getting a great deal, while actually you were paying the going rate, but a very smart tactic indeed!
    Thornbury’s Toys in Louisville was another one of my favorite family owned, independent retailers. At the time they had ten wonderful, higher-end stores, featuring some of the most well known high-end lines as Stieff and Madam Alexander. They also marketed higher quality sporting goods, and were a major Schwin Bicycles retailer.
    Bob Noe was a wonderful owner, as was his younger relative Jerry Thornbury. Jerry and I spent much time sitting around his kitchen table consuming fine locally produced Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, and working on promotional ideas.
    One of the most notable late night binge sessions resulted in my having a crew of Fisher-Pricers driving from East Aurora, New York which at the time was F-P’s corporate headquarters, an employee designed, financed and made, 80′ Snoopy Sniffer Float that we put in the Kentucky Derby Parade!
    The crew spent a couple nights at our house in Cincinnati on Burch Avenue (between Erie and Observatory), and we all had a wonderful time, with a wonderful Fisher-Price loyal and supportive customer!
    Woolsey’s Toys in Evansville, Indiana was another favorite retailer, where Jess Woolsey owned and operated, a true gentleman, and honest businessman, again in an era of an industry full of thrives, cheats, liars, and dirtbags.
    Jess and his son-in-law who did the day by day buying were a delight to work with, and made my position at Fisher-Price tolerable.
    There were others, mostly wholesalers like Novelty Distributors in Owensboro, Ky and C.I.D. (Central Indiana Distributors), Carl Keebler on Maridian in the heart of downtown Indianapolis who were some of the most influential, sincere and caring people that I have ever had the privilege of knowing and working with.

    • Cheryl L Kirk says:

      Peter
      You mentioned Novelty Distributors. That was the wholesaler my uncle, Phil Solinger owned. If you have any memories of him or his warehouse, I would love to hear them.

  16. Cary Richardson says:

    I am so saddened to see the toy store has closed. I am 42 and now live in MS, but I remember it like yesterday.

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