PHILADELPHIA (CBS/AP) — The founder of Toys “R” Us has passed away as the company is going out of business.

Company founder Charles Lazarus died Thursday at the age of 94. His death comes as the company begins to start its liquidation sales.

“There have been many sad moments for Toys‘R’Us in recent weeks, and none more heartbreaking than today’s news about the passing of our beloved founder, Charles Lazarus. He visited us in New Jersey just last year and we will forever be grateful for his positive energy, passion for the customer and love for children everywhere. Our thoughts and prayers are with Charles’ family and loved ones,” the company said in a statement to CBS Philly.

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Toys “R” Us traces its roots to 1948, when Lazarus opened Children’s Bargain Town, a baby furniture store in Washington. Lazarus opened the first Toys “R” Us in 1957, and in 1965 Geoffrey the giraffe became the company’s mascot. He appeared in his first TV commercial in 1973.

Toys “R” Us dominated the toy store business in the 1980s and early ’90s, when it was one of the first of the category killers — big stores that are so totally devoted to one thing and have such impressive selection that they drive smaller competitors out of business. Lazarus, who remained at the helm until 1994, stacked the merchandise high to give shoppers the feeling it had an infinite number of toys.

Over the decades, children used Toys “R” Us as a playground where they would meet others they wouldn’t see in the schoolyard. In the 1990s, when Pokemon was hot, children would bring shoeboxes filled with the cards, and they would trade them in the store.

Toys “R” Us was also the launch pad for what became some of the industry’s hottest toys, such as Zhu Zhu pets in 2008. Other retailers like Walmart wouldn’t take such risks on new toys from little-known brands.

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“It will be a little sad,” said Serone Francis, a mother of two who was loading her car at the Toys R Us in Fayetteville. She said her kids “like to just come and look around even if I don’t buy anything. They’re going to miss it. I’m going to miss it.”

Erin Finney of Langhorne, Pennsylvania, was at her local Toys R Us with her two of her three sons, ages 2 and 4.

“This is the toy store,” she said, noting she comes with her boys because they love to play with and actually touch all the toys. “The look in their eyes is ooooh,” she said.

Audrey Diulio and her husband Tony came to a Toys “R” Us and Babies “R” Us in Cherry Hill to stock up before their daughter is born this summer.

“We were excited to do our registry here and now it’s just a mad dash to figure out what’s next,” said Audrey.

But over the past decade, Toys “R” Us had been losing ground. Shoppers were increasingly using the stores as showrooms: They would check out the toys and then buy them cheaper online at places like Amazon.

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“I grew up at Toys R Us,” said Bryan Mann, a father of two who was at the Fayetteville store. “Things came out new. You go to the stores and grab them. Fight in line to get things. Kind of glad I won’t have to do that anymore. It’s nostalgic, but I understand why they struggle.”

Saving The Toy Store

The CEO behind Bratz dolls and Little Tike toys wants to save Toys “R” Us.

Isaac Larian says he and two other unidentified investors are pledging $200 million to try to save about 400 of the remaining 735 US stores that are slated to close. He’s started a GoFundMe page to try to raise more, through small contributions from people who love the stores, as well as to generate publicity about his efforts. So far it has raised about $5,000.

“As great as it is of an idea to save it with the GoFundMe if they can that would be fantastic. As a company if they haven’t been able to make it to have these storefronts then it probably is going to be worth it to just move into an online market,” said Tony Dilulio.

Shoppers looking to snag a bargain should act fast when the sales start Friday.

“It will be quick,” said Chuck Tatelbaum, a director with Tripp Scott, a Florida law firm, on how quickly the shelves will empty. “No more than 60 days, closer to 30 days.”

The more popular and favorite toys tend to move the fastest, and inventory is likely already slim.

“The [stores] haven’t gotten a lot of new inventory in the last month or two, so a lot of the popular things have probably already sold out,” said Tatelbaum.

Consumers with Toys “R” Us gift cards and Endless Earnings e-gift cards should also hurry. The retailer will honor these forms of payment until April 20. Stores will no longer accept coupons or other rewards.

Stores will accept returns on products purchased before the liquidation for the next 30 days. All purchases made after liquidation sales begin are final, which means they cannot be returned or exchanged.

Consumers planning on going to the store for one last walk up and down the aisles to reminisce could face a different reality.

“People will go for one last time, but I am not sure it will translate into buying,” said Tatelbaum. “I think you are going to find a general malaise – not happy and joyful employees … this is going to be almost like a wake.”

The company has been posting job openings recently for temporary positions to help during the liquidation process.

But the store closings mean that around 31,000 employees will ultimately be laid off.

(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)