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One of the biggest toy retailers in Utah is shutting its doors just in time to give bargains to early Christmas shoppers.

The national toy-store chain, Lionel Playworld, will soon close its four Utah stores in Salt Lake City, Midvale, Provo and Ogden. The stores began selling all merchandise at reduced prices Sunday.A full-page ad in Sunday's Deseret News announced an "inventory clearance sale" with 20 to 40 percent off all merchandise. The ad said all sales are final and told customers to bring cash or credit cards only, but didn't mention that the stores were being closed.

Employees at the Midvale and Brickyard Plaza stores confirmed Monday that the sales are a prelude to the shutdown of Lionel's Utah operations. The Philadelphia-based Lionel Leisure Inc. also is closing its other toy stores in the West, they said.

The manager of the Midvale store said he expects to clear all of his store's inventory within 60 days.

But the Midvale manager and other managers refused to answer any other questions about the closures, referring all inquiries to the corporate headquarters in Philadelphia.

Corporate spokesman Joel Weiner said it is the company's policy to refer all calls to him, but he also refused to comment. He said he would give no information beyond what was printed in Sunday's ad.

Weiner refused to disclose the number of Lionel employees in Utah, to say why the stores are closing or even to report how long Lionel had had stores in Utah.

A spokeswoman at the Brickyard administrative offices said that the Lionel outlet opened there just four years ago on Oct. 21, 1987. No tenant has been selected to replace Lionel, she said.

The Midvale store has been in business for more than 10 years.

But whatever troubles plague Lionel didn't seem to concern cost-conscious shoppers Monday. They were busy snatching up marked-down items.

Salt Laker Susan Horman had brought her four children to Lionel's Brickyard store Saturday so they could write out their Christmas wish lists. She returned Monday with 5-year-old Jeffrey in tow, buying the requested items at generally lower prices.

"He already knows what he's getting," she said of Jeffrey as she loaded packages into her van, "but he'll forget by Christmas."

Merrill and Nadene Dahlstrom had hoped that Lionel's clearance would ring up savings for them at the cash register. With 24 grandchildren, Christmas shopping starts early, and bargains are a necessity.

Their shopping yielded some bargains but not on everything. "There were a few good sales, but Lionel is generally more expensive than Walmart or other stores," Nadene Dahlstrom commented.

Lionel's departure from Utah's competitive toy market may benefit other retailers. At least that's what Dave Hammond of Hammond Tots & Toys is thinking.

Hammond, who heads Hammond's wholesale division, also manages the firm's Midvale store, 1088 E. Fort Union Blvd. He said while shoppers now may flock to Lionel to cash in on the clearance bargains, Hammond and other local toy retailers may inherit Lionel's customers in the long run.

Despite Lionel's troubles, Hammond expects brisk Yule sales. The family-owned local firm suffered three slow years, but last year Christmas sales improved and 1991 looks even better, Hammond said.