SPENCER, IA—The toy section of the Fleet Road Goodwill, with its heartbreaking assortment of soiled, broken, bargain-priced playthings, depressed an estimated 20 shoppers Tuesday.
"Look at this one," said Spencer resident Bobbie Perrin, 43, gingerly picking up a grimy stuffed animal with her fingertips. "Judging from the 'Kennel Kritters' tag, it must be a knock-off of one of those Pound Puppies from the '80s, only I'm pretty sure those had legs."
"Oh my God, are those tomato-soup stains on its back?" asked Perrin, flinging the Kennel Kritter back into a large bin, where it landed between a plastic horse and a faded Parcheesi game board. "I thought those were spots."
The bin, whose items were priced at 50 cents each, also contained a chewed rawhide dog bone, a Rubik's Cube with the stickers peeled off and sloppily reapplied, a broken laser-pointer key chain, a nude Skipper doll, a deflated Minnesota Vikings plastic football, a Ziploc bag containing five Teddy Ruxpin cassettes and a crayon, and a "bendie" policeman with wires poking out of its joints.
Perrin, who had come to the store looking for black pants for her daughter's waitress uniform, said she took a detour into the toy section seeking a small, impromptu gift for her neighbor's 4-year-old child. Instead, Perrin was confronted with a profoundly sad menagerie of unwanted toys.
"This is the kind of stuff you wouldn't pick up if it were lying on the side of the road," Perrin said. "Yet, somehow, it's being presented for sale as merchandise. I guess if you can't afford to buy your child a new Frisbee for $3, you can get a dirty 25-cent one here."
"I'm going home to lie down," Perrin added. "I feel awful."
Perrin is not the only customer nearly brought to tears by the toys. Liza Robichaud, 22, who periodically visits the Goodwill store to shop for drinking glasses and vintage '80s T-shirts, passed through the section on her way to the bathroom.
"The toy area has its own distinct odor: sort of a musty, mildewy, plastic, sour-milk, baby-vomit, metallic, rotting-cloth smell," Robichaud said. "It isn't quite the smell of evil—just despair."
Scanning the shelves of misfit games and books, Robichaud sighed deeply.
"I need to go wash my hands," Robichaud said. "I really shouldn't have touched that leaky Magic 8-Ball."
Corey Litt, a 21-year-old college student, was similarly shaken.
"This stuff's in such bad shape, it's hard to even enjoy it for the kitsch factor," Litt said. "I saw a can of Lincoln Logs over there and got excited. But when I opened it, there were only, like, three or four logs and a bunch of other crap—a Tinkertoy wheel with gum stuck in the holes, about a dozen bent Uno cards, a pair of lens-less sunglasses, a couple jigsaw-puzzle pieces, a marble, and a bicycle reflector."
Making the toy section all the more depressing, experts say, is the high percentage of promotional toys from fast-food restaurants and cereal boxes.
"On the ladder of toy desirability, promotional toys are the lowest rung," said Daniel Nestor, author of Bins Of Despair. "They are the shoddiest and, by virtue of their promotional nature, most dated and disposable. A child who finds a McDonald's action figure of an Asian warrior at Goodwill is highly unlikely to recognize him as a character from Mulan, and it would take a movie-trivia whiz of the highest order to know that his name is Captain Li Shang. Removed from the context of the movie and the corresponding Happy Meal box, the toy becomes that much more pitiful and obsolete than its non-promotional counterpart."
Because the toys are in such poor shape when they arrive at Goodwill, there is little incentive for the store's staff to take good care of them. As a result, their condition worsens, leading to an endless degradation spiral: The dirtier the toys become, the less likely they are to be bought. In turn, the longer they remain in the store, the dirtier they become.
"Somehow, even the saggy-diapered 2-year-olds left to entertain themselves with the toys sense their lack of value," Nestor said. "They fling them around with abandon, banging them against each other with little fear of doing harm to the chipped alphabet blocks, sticky-film-covered Mega-Bloks, mascara-smeared Barbie heads, single miniature-doll shoes, and shards of colorful plastic that are vaguely Fisher Price in origin."
"Then there are the stuffed animals," Nestor said. "Those things are just gross."