When I was a child during the 1990s, the best and most exciting toyshops in the world were The Fairy Shop, Nature’s Window and The Lost Forests. Of these, only The Fairy Shop seems to still be in operation – Nature’s Window’s hosting online has expired, and The Lost Forests closed its only New Zealand store well before 2000. The latter is about to be resurrected in Australia, however.
The Lost Forests was my absolute favourite. As I remember it, the store was an overwhelmingly immersive retail experience decorated like a magical forest, with large “talking trees”, rainforest sounds playing and interactive features scattered around the shopfloor. The products were integrated organically into this fit-out, arranged into lifelike tableaus as if they were real creatures. When a ‘puggle’ toy was purchased, staff would send it sliding down a slide into the owner’s waiting arms.
This high-investment, high-impact strategy worked. Scrolling nostalgically through The Lost Forests’ website, I realised my parents must have succumbed to around two thirds of the toymaker’s offering. Not only that, each toy was purchased in duplicate – one for me, one for my brother – as they were more or less gender-neutral, and thus likely to be fought over.
There was also a line of books starring the stuffed-toy characters, which explained the rich and compelling back-story behind The Lost Forests’ offering. The story was based around a search for the founder’s grandparents through magical ‘Otherworlds’ populated by mythological creatures.
“In 1987, Timothy's grandson, Tony the Toy Maker, found a bag of the magic seeds in an old chest in the attic and began ‘rediscovering’ the Lost Forests in the same way that his grandfather had.
“Every night, Tony opened the trapdoors and visited the Otherworlds to search for his grandfather. During the days, he made toys that looked just like the real creatures he met on his journeys, so that he could earn the money needed to pay the rent on the land where The Lost Forests once existed.”
A total of 17 The Lost Forests stores were opened worldwide by the Australian company between 1988 and 1994. Things went downhill after a dispute developed between shareholders and owners over which direction the company should head. The company also cites the impact of a recession.
New Zealand only ever had one official store on Auckland’s Queen St, but Australia had 13 and the US had three. Curiously, Wellington seems to have had a rogue store, Hocus Pocus Toys, which continued to operate for four years after the parent company folded. This was not discovered until 2016 - 18 years after the fact!
The Lost Forests has, endearingly, incorporated the stores’ closure into its back-story:
“Sadly, all 16 of the Lost Forests stores around the world had disappeared mysteriously by 1994, along with their trapdoors… Since 2006 we have existed online while we search for the perfect location to plant a new Lost Forests store... other than the very small one in our office, which has allowed us many trips into the Otherworlds! In 2016 we feel like we are getting close…”
The Lost Forests’ original financial backers, the McDonnell family, retained the company’s IP rights and resurrected it as an ecommerce business in 2006. They sought AU$195,000 capital on Indiegogo to open an official bricks and mortar store last year, but unfortunately, the crowdfunding campaign fizzled, bottoming out at just 1 percent of its target.
Thrillingly, The Lost Forests has just announced it will open a new store in Melbourne in November this year.
The company’s ecommerce website is pretty rudimentary, and its marketing collateral looks very vintage now, but in terms of concept and store design, the business was ahead of its time back in the 1990s. I’m not the only one who hasn’t forgotten it, either – in an an unmistakable sign of a Millennial-friendly trend, there’s a Buzzfeed article.
Many of those who visited the stores as children are now beginning to start their own families. When The Lost Forests relaunches its first bricks and mortar store in 25 years, it will be able to tap into those parents’ nostalgia, making for a potent mix of retail storytelling and memory. I can’t wait to see it resurrected.