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.

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.

“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.

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.

“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.”

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