Editor’s Note: Today’s post is a guest submission from HHR’s good friend Anonymous in Houston
If I told you, the loyal Houston Historic Retail reader, that a retailer opened a toy store that made the typical Toys R Us seem quaint by combining the typical big-box toy store with a children’s clothing/shoe store, a youth furniture store, a pet store, a photo studio, a full-service bicycle shop, a hobby shop, and a nationally-known fast food restaurant in a building that is larger than typical supermarkets of the time, you’d probably think that this toy store opened during some point between the late 1980s and early 2000s. Ambitious, grand big-box retail attempts such as Auchan Hypermarket, Incredible Universe, and The Great Indoors were common during that period. If that is your assumption, you might be shocked to learn that your guess would be at least fifteen years later than reality! Kids’ Kounty was truly a pioneering effort at a grand category-killer, big-box retail store that, like many other similar pioneering efforts, lived for only a very brief time.
Kids’ Kounty was birthed in 1973 by the San Antonio-based Lachman-Rose toy wholesaler owned by the conglomerate W.R. Grace and their Leisure Products and Services division. Lachman-Rose was acquired by W.R. Grace in 1971. Loyal HHR readers might be most aware of W.R. Grace’s retail efforts in Houston with their Del Taco fast food restaurants. W.R. Grace was certainly no stranger to upscale toy stores as they also owned the legendary toy store F.A.O. Schwarz.
Kids’ Kounty had two locations during their short life and both were in what were at the time prime retail spots in the Houston area. One store was located at 9345 Katy Freeway in Hedwig Village near Memorial City Mall and the other was located at 8100 S. Gessner in between Sharpstown Mall and where Westwood Mall would eventually open in 1975. Both stores were 34,000 sq. ft. and were the among largest stores at the new shopping centers they anchored. The Hedwig Village store was joined by a 27,700 sq. ft. Safeway store that is now the Kroger of the Villages and a 25,500 sq. ft. Sav-On Drugs store that is now Walgreens. The S. Gessner store was joined with a 37,000 sq. ft. Handy Dan hardware store and a 33,000 sq. ft. Fair Lanes Bowling Center.
Both Kids’ Kounty stores opened in October 1973 and Kids’ Kounty’s four mascots, The Kids’ Kounty Kharacters, were prominently featured at their grand openings. While Toys R Us had Geoffrey the Giraffe, Kids’ Kounty had Dirty Bird, Connie Cone, Hugh the Shoe, and Peter Panda. Dirty Bird was probably a reference to the pet store department, Connie Cone was surely a reference to the in-store Baskin-Robbins, and Hugh the Shoe was probably a reference to the in-store shoe/clothing department. It’s not exactly clear to me what Peter the Panda represented, but Peter ended up becoming the dominant face of the store later on in Kids’ Kounty’s very brief existence.
While reading the last paragraph, the mention of the in-store Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream Parlor surely grabbed your attention! While examples of fast food chains in retailers such as the Wendy’s in a Canton, Michigan Kmart experiment in 1985, the McDonald’s and Taco Bell-led food court at Auchan in the late 1980s, and McDonald’s at Wal-Mart in the 1990s may have seemed revolutionary at the time, W.R. Grace had managed to integrate fast food into retailers years before with Kids’ Kounty. The Baskin-Robbins wasn’t just an afterthought at the store either, it was a central part of the store as Kids’ Kounty planned on using the Baskin-Robbins to have birthday celebrations for kids in the Kids’ Kounty Party Room which was located in an upstairs part of the store. Sunshine Photograph of Amarillo, which was a division of Palo Duro Photographs, operated the in-store photo studio.
Kids’ Kounty’s early slogan was “The SuperfunSuperstore for Kids” and their later slogan was “The Super Department Store For Kids.” Both seem like apt slogans for the store given the ‘super’ nature of it. While Kids’ Kounty had all kinds of products for children and teens, it seems Kids’ Kounty distinguished themselves by selling high-end toys such as $1,000 billiards tables! Pseudo3D of the Carbon-izer website found a description of Kids’ Kounty that was published in the February 1974 issue of Texas Monthly magazine. The article, which is free to read at Google Books here, described what it was like shopping at Kids’ Kounty.
Unfortunately for Lachman-Rose and W.R. Grace, it seems even 1970s Houstonians flush with cash due to high energy prices boosting the fortunes of the local oil industry could not sustain Kids’ Kounty’s ambitious approach to retail. By July 1975, the two Kids’ Kounty stores were already liquidating. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t a going out of business liquidation but rather a remodeling liquidation. Kids’ Kounty died, but yet it didn’t completely die!
After the failure of Kids’ Kounty, Lachman-Rose reformed the two Kids’ Kounty locations into a more traditional big-box toy store format that they had been using elsewhere in Texas. These stores were called Fun City Toys (not to be confused for another famous Houston spot for children, Fame City/Funplex), the “Discount Toy Supermarket.” While Fun City Toys eliminated some of the more unique departments that Kids’ Kounty had such as the Baskin-Robbins and the pet store, it was still a fairly comprehensive store that sold youth furniture, hobby merchandise, and even patio furniture in addition to toys.
By the end of the 1970s, two additional Houston area Fun City Toys locations had opened up at 6161 South Loop East and 11219 North Freeway which is the building that would later become the first Greenspoint Mall area Best Buy location. In 1980, Fun City Toys was sold to nationally-prominent toy retailer Lionel. Lionel initially marketed these stores under their familiar Lionel Playworld name (Lionel also operated under the Lionel Kiddie City name in some markets) along with the Fun City Toys name in 1980, but it seems Lionel eventually settled on naming the stores Playworld Fun City. Unfortunately, Lionel’s acquisitions of Fun City Toys and other toy stores stretched their finances and they filed for bankruptcy in 1982. Although Lionel’s stores survived elsewhere in the country, their four stores in Houston closed in 1982 due to the bankruptcy. Lionel filed for bankruptcy again in 1991. Lionel tried to merge with struggling toy retailer Child World in 1992, which would have given then a presence in Houston again as Child World operated the Children’s Palace stores in Houston, but those plans never came to fruition. Child World went out of business in 1992 and Lionel themselves went out of business in 1993.
Remarkably, some elements of Kids’ Kounty still remain in Houston even to this very day. Both the Hedwig Village and S. Gessner shopping centers where Kids’ Kounty operated still have Baskin-Robbins stores that are still operating 46 years after the closure of Kids’ Kounty! The Hedwig Village Baskin-Robbins moved to the other end of the shopping center at some point, but the S. Gessner location is likely in the same spot, or very close to it, that it was in the 1970s. Obviously, it now only has an outdoor entrance and it operates like any other normal Baskin-Robbins. The spot the Kids’ Kounty was in at the Hedwig Village shopping center is now a TJ Maxx. It’s possible that the oak tree in front of the TJ Maxx dates back to the Kids’ Kounty!
If you have any thoughts about or memories of Kids’ Kounty, Fun City Toys, or Lionel Playworld, please feel free to share them with us in the comments section below!
Here’s a quick update: Pseudo3D of Carbon-izer has updated his Katy Freeway page which has some additional information about what happened to the Hedwig Village Kids’ Kounty/Fun City/Lionel Playworld spot after Lionel Playworld went out of business and before TJMaxx opened up in the spot: http://www.carbon-izer.com/aerostar/katy/katy.html
This is a really great and interesting obscure piece of retail history here, thanks for sharing. The “superfun superstore” concept was certainly ahead of its time, and that in-store Baskin Robbins may well break the record for earliest example of a fast food chain inside a retailer, since that Wendy’s in Kmart was what I thought to be the first example of that. Even cooler that both Baskin Robbins are still operating today!
Thanks, I’m glad you liked the post. This was a fun retailer to research because I, along with Mike and Pseudo3D, kept finding more and more interesting things about this place as we kept researching it! What I thought was going to be an interesting blog post ended up being even more interesting than I initially thought!
As far as I knew, the Wendy’s/Kmart combo was the earliest fast food-big box store combo, but it seems there was another attempt years before! I can only imagine how neat it might have been for someone to visit this store when it was around and see something as remarkable as a major fast food chain inside a retailer! I can remember thinking how neat it was to see Auchan with major fast food vendors inside, but that grand opening was 15 years after Kids’ Kounty opened!
What an era to be a kid! I remember Lionel Playworld in New Orleans, Kay bee Toy and Hobby, Circus World, Children’s Palace, and of course Toys R Us. I got to experience the Louisiana and Texas versions of all of these stores except Lionel Playworld in Texas.
Children’s Palace was my favorite one to go to. Neon signs, huge video game department, large aisles filled with toys. Their sports and hobby card selection was pretty good as well.
At least one of these brands will live on with Toys R Us partnering up with Macy’s. Hopefully more stores will eventually come along to pick up the slack.
You’re right, there were a lot of great toy stores for kids back in this era. I don’t think I ever went to a Lionel Playworld, but I suppose it’s possible I went to one of the Houston locations and I just don’t remember it. I certainly do remember Kay-Bee, Circus World, Children’s Palace, and Toys R Us. Children’s Palace in some ways felt less industrial than Toys R Us even though the Willowbrook The Commons Children’s Palace location (and the Greenspoint The Commons location as well if I remember correctly) had concrete floors and other industrial features. Children’s Palace seemed to have wider aisles and better presentations than Toys R Us. I remember Children’s Palace having a large collection of Staring Lineup sports figurines back in the day!
As nice as these toy stores were, they couldn’t compete with Toys R Us and especially other discount stores like Wal-Mart. That is a shame, but at least those of us of a certain age do remember some of interesting, somewhat forgotten about toy stores!
I remember the North Freeway Lionel Play World. I was 2 and my father bought me a wooden Superman tray puzzle, one of many which I had. He also bought 2 of the DC comics anthologies that were just 3 recent issues with the covers removed and glued together. I remember reading those.
I remember the Fun City Toys sign looming over I-45 for years. I guess it was a ghost sign since I was only a baby when Lionel took it over. For some reason I remember a brown bear on the sign. The sign still stands. Best Buy used it as well as the current occupant, Golf Carts of Houston.
Now I’m wondering when Toys R Us opened across the freeway. They outlasted their competitors for many years.
Those are some good memories, Michael. I’m glad to hear someone remembers these stores! The bear on the Fun City Toys sign would have been their mascot Livingston the Bear. Looking at that N. Freeway sign, you’re probably right about that dating back to the opening of Fun City Toys. It does look quite old and rusty. I probably did see that zombie Fun City Toys sign before it became Best Buy, but I can’t say I have any memories of it. I do have memories of the Best Buy there for sure though.
From my research, it seems the Greenspoint Toys R Us that is now the El Rancho Supermarket (a very interesting supermarket, BTW) opened in 1987. I believe that to be accurate, but there is a possibility it might be a tad off. Either way, it seems like it opened after Fun City/Lionel closed. The original Houston Toys R Us was further south on the North Freeway at 4701 North Freeway where the Star Furniture Clearance Outlet is now in the Northline area. That opened in November 1973. The Almeda and Memorial City/Hedwig Village Toys R Us stores opened shortly afterward in late 1973-early 1974. Thus, the Hedwig Village Kids Kounty certainly would have had tough competition from the also-new Toys R Us there.
The original Houston Toys R Us stores, at least the Northline area one, would have been quite a bit larger than even Kids Kounty at 48,000 sq. feet in size. That said, Toys R Us even if those days was very much operated like a discount store as opposed to the more upscale Kids Kounty. Toys R Us even specifically marketed themselves as a no-frills toy store in those days. Kids Kounty’s special departments certainly would have set it apart from Toys R Us, but maybe we can probably assume that Toys R Us had a pricing advantage that gave them an advantage over Kids Kounty.
I’m now wondering about that Fun City Toys sign. I recall that the mascot was on the left and he was either walking or presenting the logo, which was arranged vertically on the right. It was the one seen in the 1979 ad. I wonder if Lionel put their sign in front of it or just left it as is since it was officially Play World Fun City. It outlasted the store for some time. I remember we were on 45 and I asked my parents if we could stop there. My mom said they were closed. I guess I was too young to understand “out of business”. Best Buy painted over that sign so Livingston and the store he proudly supported are long lost to the mists of time.
I have the dimmest memories of the store sign. I think it said Play World and had the kangaroo. It was 40 years ago, though. I’m still surprised I remember which Superman puzzle I received from there. I sure wish there were photos.
Speaking of toy store signs, I remember a peculiarity about the Toys R Us street sign at their Greenspoint location. It never had Geoffrey. I remember thinking how unusual that was. I really miss the days when street signs were eye-catching.
One more memory. but not mine. It is in regards to the Fair Lanes Bowling Center on South Gessner. My parents were part of a bowling league that met there back in the 70s. It was through my mom’s job. She was an accountant for Imco, a long-gone division of Halliburton. She remembered “going online” to post numbers. The internet was strictly functional back then. She also recalled that there was nothing on 59 past the Channel 2 studios. I remember going on a field trip to Imperial Sugar in fifth grade (1989-90) and other than Texas Instruments in Stafford, 59 was still pretty desolate. I was quite surprised in 1999 when I was sent out there for job training and I saw how much the area had grown in 10 years.
That is interesting if the store sign had Lionel’s Playworld name and mascot on it, but the street sign had the Fun City name and the old Livingston mascot on it. I suppose that just goes to show how confusing the name situation was after Lionel bought out Fun City Toys. It would have been great if I could have found some decent photographs from inside these stores, but unfortunately those probably only exist in the Houston Chronicle’s vaults.
There are some Lionel Playworld commercials on YouTube if you search for them there. Most of them are from after Lionel’s departure from Houston. Here’s one of those from 1983, but it does have some images from inside a store. The Houston locations likely would have had Fun City’s interiors which might have looked different. Link: https://youtu.be/kCmqhqo8wYE
It’s hard to remember for sure, but I’m not sure if the original Willowbrook area Toys R Us ever had Geoffrey on the street sign. If it did, Geoffrey was removed at some point later on. The Willowbrook store was slightly older than the Greenspoint store, but they are close enough in age that they likely would have been similar.
Mike or billytheskink can probably give you better memories of 59 before the growth of Ft. Bend County since that’s a part of town I rarely visit, but certainly I can recall the emptiness of 290 out past FM 1960, I-45 before The Woodlands boomed, and I-10 before the Katy area boomed. Some of these ‘new’ areas, especially those on 290, still seem strange and awkward to me!
Thanks goes to Pseudo3D for this tip, but someone at HAIF has a color photo of the grand opening of the Hedwig Village Kids’ Kounty! Check out the size of that crowd. I’m glad this exists: http://www.houstonarchitecture.com/haif/uploads/monthly_2017_06/image.jpeg.06680ad4cf6c907930c681cf72ae8428.jpeg
The old Willowbrook TRU had Geoffrey on their road sign. It was a sign to be excited to see as a kid.