What does it say about a city when a store selling $250,000 piano mats is priced out of its building? The news of FAO Schwarz's move from its Fifth Ave flagship tolls a dark hour for New York.

It's also a major blow to children, toy soldiers, and aspiring actors the world over. As the store looks for a cheaper space, we asked a former FAO employee (babydoll nurse, personal shopper, party planner, and Princess) to tell us what it was like to work there her. Heather Sparx fondly recalls memories of baby doll adoptions and wedding proposals to not-so-fond memories of ever-menacing (and ever-horny) dads.

The last Princess of FAO Schwarz Fifth Ave on the end of a dynasty. Image 1.

Whitney Kimball

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The last Princess of FAO Schwarz Fifth Ave on the end of a dynasty. Image 2.

Hopes&Fears: How did you become the Princess?

Heather Sparx: I went to an acting conservatory and I'm a singer. I've always loved FAO, so I thought, why not. When I was hired, I was hired as a specialist. Then one day I saw the princess, and I was like "I need that crown."

Hopes&Fears: Was there stiff competition?

HS: Yes, being Princess was the créme-de-la-créme. This one girl hated me when I took over the title. I played her at parties and sometimes got to wander the store as the Princess. But eventually they killed off the Princess, basically because the dress was falling apart. It was a Bob Mackie design, it was very cool. When they got rid of the princess character, my heart broke.

H&f: How long did you hold onto the title?

Hs: I would say 2 years, that's when they cut her. And then I became a full-time Nurse. I was even featured in the FAO Schwarz catalog. 

H&F: How do you get to be a baby doll nurse? Do you have to audition?

Hs: Yes. They wouldn't stick just anyone in the nursery. When you apply at FAO - if you want to demo a toy or be a character - you need to be picked. Before I started they even asked for a headshot! I remember seeing Kristen Schaal's headshot in the pile. Almost all of the nurses were actors.

H&FWas that a joke application? 

Hs: Not at all, she worked there as a demonstrator before my time.

H&F: What does nursing entail? 

Hs: Little girls (and boys) would come in to the store and choose a baby, and it was my job to make sure they were ready to adopt. We'd ask simple questions, like: Will you sing to your baby? Will you read to her? Will you change her diapers? And the most important, will you love your baby forever? Then we named the baby and gave it a birth date. Followed by a checkup.

Actually, I had to hold back my tears a few times. Sometimes the kids were there because they themselves had been adopted. So it was quite sweet. The kids were always welcome to bring in their babies for a checkup whenever they wanted. We always had a nurse or doctor around during store hours.

I had to hold back my tears a few times. Sometimes the kids were there because they themselves had been adopted. So it was quite sweet.

The last Princess of FAO Schwarz Fifth Ave on the end of a dynasty. Image 3.

FAO Schwarz Catalogue featuring Heather Sparxx. 

FAO Schwarz was founded in 1862 and holds the distinction of being the oldest toy company in the United States. 

H&FWhat were the injuries?

Hs: "My baby has a cold." "My baby has a booboo." "My baby needs to get her hair fixed." We would give them a new diaper, clean up their hair and use our pretend nurse tools. Being on the demo team was a lot of fun. We were paid to play from 12-5. 

H&F: What do you mean by "demoing"? 

Hs: Basically, if you wanted your toy to be demonstrated, you paid for it. You can pay for whatever amount of hours a week and your toy would have to be played with by a demo team member. And if you were a Toy Soldier, you had to stand by the door greeting and taking pictures all day and do story time.

My last position with the company was as Event Planner. It was my job to create the perfect party, and no idea was too big. I had to hire entertainment and book the caterer. Make the party room look like whatever the theme was, and plan everything out down to the last detail– birthday parties, scavenger hunts and even late night events.

We had a private party room on the second floor by the big piano. Most were birthday parties. Anything from babies first birthdays to 7 years old. Families would request a character at their party, like a Power Ranger or Darth Vader.

Families would want to close off the entire piano section for their party guests only. Which was always a difficult request because I couldn't do that to guests who were at FAO specifically to play on the piano.

I remember having to run around the store filling my cart up with hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of toys. Even thousands.

H&F: I was going to ask about that- how often do you get people coming in just to recreate the BIG scene?

Hs: All the time. I even had requests for marriage proposals in the store.

H&FWould people call ahead to make arrangements?

Hs: Yes, and I always had to get the store managers "okay" to do it.

H&F: What were they? Just to clear the space?

Hs: Yes. For example, one couple wanted to propose in one of the towers. And so we had a Toy Soldier waiting with the area roped off. But during the holiday season, we could not book any parties as the store was kind of crazy packed with people. So during that time, I was a personal shopper.

If you called the store, you had the option of speaking with a personal shopper. And basically the client would give us some info: budget, age and what the child was into. Sometimes it was simple, but usually not. Then you had the whole celebrity thing. They would almost always be walked through the store with a personal shopper. If the client wanted, they could come in when the store was closed. That was usually for very large purchases or VIP.

H&FWhat's a "very large purchase"?

Hs: I remember having to run around the store filling my cart up with hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of toys. Even thousands. And of course meeting Posh Spice– my inner 10-year-old screamed, but I had to keep my cool.

 

H&FThat's so cool. What was she like?

Hs: She was very nice! I demoed a rainbow brush marker to her and her boys, and she bought it.

H&FCan we talk about dads really quick? Were dads..um..a problem?

HS: Yes. You would think that being in a toy store surrounded by your family, you wouldn't have dirty thoughts on your mind! Some dads would hold on to our hips, or whisper in our ear: How much for you?

H&F: Ew.

HS: Does the nurse come with the doll? If we weren't taking pictures with kids, we were taking pictures with men... and teenage boys. I had a stalker! This one man would come into the store and stand behind shelves and stare, he would ask me out to Starbucks and continue to do so for weeks. I honestly felt scared. So I told security and had to leave the floor.

H&FDid you ever have to get a manager involved?

HS: Yes, one time. But we weren't allowed to talk back. We had to grin and bear it. I've also heard that the Toy Soldiers got their butts pinched by moms. 

H&FHow often would that happen to the staff? Was this a daily thing?

HS: Definitely daily. If you were a nurse or a soldier, you were warned by your teammates. But the kids definitely outshined the creepy dads. There are so many great memories... I really miss seeing how happy I could make a child. Knowing I put that smile on their face. Whether I was planning their party or entertaining the party, or giving them their new baby doll, it was a really great feeling. Also, the people that work there were really great. Theres's one Toy Soldier in particular, the face of the store, Micah... we would run around the store, eating candy, taking pictures, and just feeling like kids when we were soldier and princess.

You would think that being in a toy store surrounded by your family, you wouldn't have dirty thoughts on your mind! Some dads would hold on to our hips, or whisper in our ear: How much for you?

 

Images courtesy Heather Sparx