Yo-Yo String Theory (from 2008)

At a recent picnic my six-year-old daughter won a yo-yo as a prize for playing a game. But it wasn’t a real yo-yo. It was a cheap give-away, the kind that come in a pack of six in the party aisle. It wasn’t  heavy enough to really work and it didn’t have the right type of string. Undaunted, my daughter tried to “make it work,” determined to master the secret technique. It was useless.  I couldn’t even make it work, and that’s saying something.

Thirty-two years ago the world was in the midst of a yo-yo craze…well, at least the world of 13 year old boys was in the middle of a yo-yo craze. Every single one of my friends owned several yo-yo’s and every kid I knew had at least one.

We yo-yoed as we walked to school and we yo-yoed as we walked home.  We even yo-yoed secretly during school, behind the gym during lunch and even in the hallway between classes, if it was crowded and you were sly. But it was risky business because yo-yoing at school was strictly forbidden. One-too-many students had taken a yo-yo to the eyebrow when some knucklehead attempted to execute “around the world” without looking behind him first. If you were caught using a yo-yo it would be confiscated and not returned until the end of the school year.

Unable to control the urge, all of us had wiped out our yo-yo at an inopportune moment only to have it taken away in the middle of “rock the baby.”  After school on the last day of my eighth grade year I dutifully made my way to the front office to wait in line behind all the other yo-yo fiends to have our property returned, each of us standing there with a tell-tell circle shape in our pocket. While possession was technically illegal, it was use that got you in trouble. I had three yo-yo’s returned on that last day of school. I knew one kid who had eleven given back. That guy was a legend and the only kid I knew who was ambidextrous with yo-yos.

On top of my six-year-old daughter’s frustration with the fake yo-yo was my four-year daughter’s profound disappointment that she too did not have a yo-yo.  It was more than I could take.  Later that day I headed down the street to a large national chain toy store to buy a couple of real yo-yo’s, maybe even three.

Growing up in suburbia, I cannot truly lament the demise of the independent toy store the way those who grew up in small towns can. The closest thing to Main Street I experienced growing up was the strip mall. But a few of those strip malls had small toy stores and what I remember about them was the invitation of chaos.

This was true of many independent retailers in my childhood. Small hardware stores, drug stores, record stores, book sellers, and the ubiquitous catch-all, the Five & Dime. These merchants did not have target markets, merchandizing programs, or marketing campaigns.  They carried too much inventory of too great a variety and it was often unorganized. These stores were crowded with stuff. These kinds of inefficiencies would eventually contribute to their demise, but the chaos was an invitation to linger, explore and discover. Around every corner was something different, something you didn’t know you were looking for until you found it. They were the great-great-grandparents of Target, without the pimped “designer” merchandise.

Walking into the big chain toy store was not an invitation to do anything other than shop efficiently.  The entry area guided me past the help desk and then through a selection of seasonally relevant merchandise before depositing me into a department full of large things, the large item department I suspect. There were playhouses and slides, jungle gyms, an animatronic baby dinosaur the size of a large dog and, lined up like soldiers in the middle of the department, a collection of giant and menacing Dora the Explorer dolls. The dolls were at least three feet tall and perhaps the scariest toys I have ever seen.

Turning to escape Dora’s persistent gaze, I looked up the aisle to my left:  cash registers, party supplies (no doubt, including six-packs of fake yo-yos) and the electronics department separated from the rest of the store by what appeared to be bullet proof glass. To my right were children’s clothes and a smattering of miscellaneous Barbie-pink. I could feel Dora’s culturally ambiguous puppy-eyes shooting darts in my back so I shuffled off to the right.

As I circled the store I peered down each aisle looking for yo-yos.  What became clear immediately was that cross-merchandizing now rules the universe.  From Sesame Street to Disney, the store was full of toys spawned by television and movies. And almost every single aisle contained at least one toy with the face of Miley Cyrus as Hanna Montana on the package. My own children were not immune to Hanna Montana-itis.  While I would receive an outpouring of gratitude for bring home yo-yos, I would be worshiped and adored if those yo-yos included the face of Hanna Montana.

Although the toy store was large and obviously had a significant inventory, I was struck by the sameness of the toys. Looking closer, I noticed that entire aisles were devoted to only one or two brands or several brands from only one or two manufacturers. Apparently, the demise of the independent toy seller had coincided with consolidation in the manufacturing sector.  But aside from the source of the toys, the redundancy bordered on ludicrous. The entire side of one aisle was devoted to professional wrestling action figures.  From a distance, this aisle looked no different than the aisle next to it, which was completely devoted to action figures of every stripe, from Star Wars to desert-ready GI Joes.

I finished my circle of the store and had not seen any yo-yo’s, Hanna Montana or otherwise.   I figured I must have missed them. I tried to think logically. They should be in games or sports, right? But I did not remember a game or a sports section. So I widened my search, walking down each aisle, and soon arrived at an anemic sports aisle with a few bats and balls and hockey sticks, but no yo-yo’s. I suppose the small selection in the sports department had something to do with the three or four large sporting goods retailers within a three mile radius of the toy store.  I moved on, looking for games.

It took a little time but eventually I found the game section, tucked into a corner near the entrance, behind the watchful eyes of the Dora dolls. I paced back and forth in front of the games, looking closely at the area where dozens of small hand-held games were hanging. No yo-yo’s. The customer service desk was just a few feet away so I stepped up and asked the clerk if she could direct me to the yo-yo’s.  She said that, “if we have any,” they would be in the game department, and she pointed to where I had just been.

If they had any? What could she mean by that?  A toy store without yo-yo’s? Impossible. I was about to ask where in the game section I might find the yo-yo’s, if they had any, when another clerk said, “sports.”

Needless to say, I checked both the games area and the sports area but did not find any yo-yo’s.  I was about to try again at the customer service desk when I remembered there was a drug store around the corner. True, it too was a national chain, but like it’s ancestors, the drugstores of my childhood, it maintained a relatively eclectic mix of merchandise.

When I was growing up, even the chain drugstores carried everything you needed to make it through ordinary living. In addition to picking up your prescription, you could buy deodorant, gum, yarn, pretzels, cinnamon flavored toothpicks, a Thermos, a cane, Windex, bean dip, rat traps, bird food, eye-liner, beer, magazines, light bulbs, a can opener, a hammer, toilet paper, a fishing lure, a birthday card, socks, and a scoop of ice cream for a nickel. But best of all, you could not only buy a yo-yo…you could buy yo-yo string.

Yo-yo string doesn’t last forever, especially if you’re yo-yoing all the way to and from school. It wears out even faster if your spending a lot of time letting the yo-yo “sleep” at the end of the string before giving it a little tug to bring it back up. Causing the yo-yo to sleep looks like a magic trick and takes some practice. It’s a required skill for the majority of yo-yo tricks. Among 13 year old boys in 1976, being able to let the yo-yo sleep for a long time and still get it to jump back into your hand was a sign of something akin to virility, and spontaneous contests broke out unendingly.  At the drugstore, every cashier had a stash of yo-yo string that you had to ask for, just like condoms. They came one to a package, ten cents.

The trip to the toy store had been a little depressing, but I was hopeful as I entered the drugstore. Surely they had not abandoned their roots and stopped carrying yo-yos. If there was only one toy on the toy aisle, it would have to be the yo-yo.  And sure enough, as I rounded the display of gift-box scotch and entered the toy aisle, I spotted two real yo-yo’s hanging from a peg. They were the very same yo-yo’s I had owned in countless colors as a kid, one Duncan Imperial, and one Duncan Butterfly.  I felt what was, for the occasion, a disproportionate sense of joy.

They were the only two yo-yo’s in the aisle and I walked grinning ear to ear to the front of the store, where a line of seven people stood in front of a single cashier. By the time it was my turn, the line had grown even longer behind me, but I could not resist. As the woman behind the counter rang up my yo-yo’s I asked, “By any chance do you sell yo-yo string?”

“What?”

“Yo-Yo string…you know, replacement string for yo-yo’s”

“They don’t come with string? Look, I see the string right there.”

“Yeah, but it will wear out and I was just wondering…”

“String wears out, it’s time to get a new yo-yo.”

Someone behind me in line groaned, so I let it drop. A few days later I still couldn’t get the idea of a toy store without yo-yo’s out of my head, so I sat down to write this essay. In fact, I titled it, “A Toy Store Without Yo-Yo’s. But as I began writing I realized it could not be true. I had simply missed them or, worse case, they were simply out of stock. Poor inventory management? Yes. A harbinger of the decline of western civilization? I couldn’t believe it.  I drove back to the toy store to look again and if I couldn’t find a yo-yo, to ask the manager what the hell was going on and question his or her patriotism.

I walked quickly past the help desk and the seasonal items and as I approached the game section from a direction I hadn’t before I saw them, a display full of yo-yo’s.  They were in a cardboard display unit provided by Duncan, the manufacturer. In fact, most of the yo-yo’s still had the rubber bands around them that held them in place during shipping. The display was opposite the game wall, so my back had been to it during my previous visit.

After a moment of grieving for my now meaningless righteous indignation, I laughed. Yes, the yo-yo’s were tucked away and poorly displayed, but they were there. I picked out an orange Butterfly and blue Imperial, this time for myself.

At first I didn’t return to this essay. I figured it was a dead issue. Had I only turned around on my first visit to the toy store I would have found them. The toy store did carry yo-yo’s. But a small sadness haunted me.

This essay is titled the Yo-Yo String Theory but it’s not about the fact that they no longer sell yo-yo string at the drugstore.  Ten seconds on the internet revealed that I could easily order all the yo-yo string I need, in a rainbow of colors, and it still costs about ten cents a string.  I hope it’s not about nostalgia, though I suspect it is to a great degree. More correctly, it’s about the fact that nostalgia matters to me, now. And by now, I mean, with age.

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