WOODBRIDGE, NJ – Cheryl Claude was two years from high school, already married, and raised her first child when she joined a 1985 Toys & # 39; R & # 39; Us one day bought diapers. The store manager noticed how Mrs. Claude picked up a toy that had fallen to the floor and put it back on the shelf. He offered her a job on the spot.
She continued to store shelves for 33 years, unloading trucks from one of the world's largest toy retailers. "That was my home," Ms. Claude, 52, said.
Her career ended on Thursday when Toy "R" Us on Route 1
Until then, the shelves were mostly bare, except for a few stuffed animals, jewelry and polyester pillows. There were booths with Pokémon Christmas decorations and summer outfits for Ken dolls, along with bright orange price tags on the fridge and folding chairs in the break room.
Another retailer, Toys & # 39; R & # 39; Us, a brand dating to 1957, has closed the last 735 stores in the country this week. As more and more Americans shop online, the company's cavernous suburban stores are outdated and the $ 5 billion in debt burdened by their private equity owners.
Most large companies that declare bankruptcy cut off their debt, cut costs and keep working. But the lenders of Toys & # 39; R & # 39; We decided that operations in the US were worth more in a retail sale than in a functioning business.
Ms. Claude, a deputy manager, and the thousands of other workers in the company receive no compensation after they leave. Employees were told there was not enough money left after paying for the company's creditors, bankruptcy lawyers and consultants.
Ms. Claude continued to work in the last few weeks, along with other longtime collaborators who remained out of pride, necessity or denial.
Iggy Abreu, the store's 46-year-old "key carrier," arrived 15 minutes earlier. He opened the store at six in the morning just as he had always done.
Maggie Kuziw, a warehouse specialist, came in to keep up with the ever-changing price tags.
Cathy Koperwhats continues the baby "I'm not doing anything, and that's not a good feeling," she said.
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With each passing week, the store shrank from a sprawling showroom into just three aisles of toys nobody wanted. 19659002] As painful as the process was, Cheryl Claude did the best: unloading, storing and moving the product.
On a warm afternoon in the first week of June, Ms. Claude wore a roll of duct tape to her wrist and barked orders into her headset on the staff. A van had just dropped 18 pallets of Skylander plastic figurines of video game characters. The regional managers found that the Woodbridge store had the best chance of selling them.
"How are we going to get rid of all this?" She said. Claude is 5 feet 1 inch tall, with shoulder-length blond hair. She wears a gold cross around her neck, a small tattoo on her wrist and four long metal bars in her back.
Her first job was to spend the night in the warehouse of the former East Brunswick store, where she got $ 3.35 an hour. She took care of her daughter during the day, while her first husband worked as a baker at the nearby Sunshine Biscuit Factory.
In the end, Ms. Claude made around $ 62,000 as an assistant manager in Woodbridge. "That was a good job," she said.
It could also be a fun job. There were Halloween parties at Chi-Chi's, a Mexican chain where the Toys & # 39; R & # 39; US workers Limbo played and played the chicken dance. Local teens got summer jobs as "toy explorers" rolling on roller skates through the store trying out new toys.
Even catching shoplifters could be amusing. Mr. Abreu recalled finding a container that a customer had stashed under a shelf. "These were adult men hiding toys, not kids," he said.
Many of the workers were not attentive when the company was sold to investment firms KKR, Bain Capital and Vornado Realty Trust in 2005. Good and bad years, but it always seemed to be quite good.
At that time, Mrs. Claude was working on the "back of the house" in the store of Toys & # 39; R & # 39; Us in East Brunswick.
There she met her husband John on a rainy day in 2008. His 6ft 6 frame was soaking wet from collecting trolleys in the parking lot. Ms. Claude immediately recruited him to work on her team unloading trucks.
They had their first date in the Toys & # 39; R & # 39; Us in Times Square and wore matching Timberland sweatshirts. She has never been to Manhattan, about an hour from her house. "We were like kids," she said.
Ms. Claude returned to Times Square in August 2016. She was one of dozens of employees honored for her many years of service at a dinner party at a Midtown hotel
"Do not worry," read a presentation at the meeting. "Everything will be fine."
Everything was wrong.
One year after the party, Toys & # 39; R & # 39; Us his bankruptcy, referring to his huge debts. The firm's lawyers were confident that the retailer could continue working as loan payments were cut. But after a weak Christmas season, creditors doubted whether the company had a viable future, and urged it to end its activities in the United States.
Woodbridge store employees were told in March that they had three months left to work. Koperwhats, 57, felt betrayed. She thought of all the Christmas and Independence days she had missed for 34 years because she worked. She helped the new parents, who came into the baby register like their own children.
"When I heard that the company had all these debts, it broke my heart," she said. "I never knew until the bankruptcy."
Mr. Abreu could not believe it was over. He graduated a few years after graduating with a degree in political science and criminal justice from Toys & # 39; R & # 39; Us started. He has had other jobs in retail over the years, but toys – especially Star Wars and Transformers – are his "passion."
He usually wears a tool belt on his hip that holds a pair of scissors, a screwdriver and a selection of colored markers. To keep up to date, he liked to research the latest toys on the websites of the manufacturers.
"I was told that the next position of Deputy Director was mine," said Mr. Abreu, who had earned $ 12.46 an hour  wife. Claude's injuries over the closures soon turned into rage. She looked at Toys & # 39; R & # 39; Us as her family. Many of their employees attended their wedding on the South Amboy Waterfront.
In her living room is a commemorative plaque in honor of her 30-year-old working day. Her shop also gave her a coupon for 20 percent off her next purchase at Toys & # 39; R & # 39; Us to recognize their service.
When the shop gave her the coupon, Mrs. Claude realized that she had already expired.
"How do you sleep at night?"
wife. Claude stood at the front door of the Woodbridge store two weeks ago, greeting his customers.
"Can I help you find something?" Ms. Claude asked politely and with a smile as the store was dismantled around her.
Outside the store, Mrs. Claude took on a different role. She met with New York's accountant and US Senators Cory Booker and Robert Menendez of New Jersey to warn of the downsides of indebted private equity investments.
One morning she yelled through a megaphone in the lobby of Bain Capital's Madison Avenue offices
"How can you sleep at night?" She exclaimed as other employees of Toys & # 39; R & # 39; Us cheered and watched a phalanx of New York policemen with plastic handcuffs on the belts.
Preceded Employee representative group Rise Up Retail, employees of Toys & # 39; R & # 39; US, involved in protests across the country, calling for new laws that would oblige retailers to pay severance pay to their employees and limit the debts of private-owned companies
The workers have debts amounting to approximately $ 75 million. The company's bankruptcy lawyers and advisers are expected to pay fees of up to $ 348 million
. Claude was looking for another job. But she is worried about working in retail again. Her husband works two jobs, at BJ Wholesale Club and in a Barnes & Noble warehouse. Her sister works at Home Depot.
"If we do nothing, the same thing will happen," she said.
The Last Days
With only a few days left, many customers came to the Woodbridge store to buy shelves and lamps, no toys.
To save money, the company wanted to turn off the soundtrack over the speakers, but Ms. Claude did not let her. "I do not work silently," she said.
A man from the real estate company who took care of the property arrived one morning and attached a small box by the front door.
He explained to Mrs. Claude that the staff should deposit their keys in the box as soon as they closed the shop.
One customer, Sean Fennick, 43, ransacked the hallways with a Slayer T-shirt and a Batman baseball cap. He came here ever since he was a boy, and he still preferred looking for toys in a shop instead of online.
"That should not happen to Toys & # 39; us," he said to Mrs. Claude. "I am sorry."
Sometimes tensions flared up. A fierce dispute broke out between two customers about the store's last Minnie Mouse car. Another customer hurled a stuffed white rabbit against the wall after being reminded that all sales were final and he could not return them.
In a private setting, Mrs. Claude's usual tenacity began to wane. She began adding her credit card bill, rental and lease payments. In panic, she called her daughter in North Carolina
"How am I supposed to go through this?" She said.
On the last morning, Ms. Claude and her staff gathered at the ticket booth for a breakfast of bagels, brownies, and orange juice.
A small crowd was waiting on the doorstep. The workers in their sky blue shirts were preparing to greet them one last time.
But the doors never really opened. At the last minute, a reseller interrupted a deal with the company to buy everything left over at the Woodbridge store.
The trader's moving crew crowded in and started black garbage bags with pink baby blankets and some of the Skylander action figures. The company, based in Richmond, Virginia, planned to resell it on the Internet
. Claude watched in frustration. But then she could not help it. She went back to work and told the resellers how to best charge their rental truck to make room for all the boxes.
When the Toys & # 39; R & # 39; Us worker called the reseller, a guy in a tank top and a little girl in pink crocs headed for the front door, hoping to come in.
"I'm sorry, partner," said Mrs. Claude. "We have closed, there is nothing left."