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!