Gendel standing behind a giant decorated wood horse
Gary Gendel in his College Avenue toy store in photo taken by Chet Hovey that appeared in a 1974 newspaper article. Courtesy: Lucia Gendel

Gary Gendel had an affinity for novelty and old-timey amusements. 

In 1971 he turned a former barbershop near the corner of College and Russell Street into the candy store Sweet Dreams and filled the barber pole with jelly beans. 

Two years later he opened a toy store called The Pleasures of Childhood a few doors down the block, at 2921 College Ave., where he wanted “to recreate the mood of a childhood in an elegant aristocratic home in turn-of-the-century France, with antique doll houses and other handcrafted toys,” according to a period newspaper account. 

Each room of the toy store had a different theme and decor. One featured an old-fashioned puppet theater, where members of Berkeley Repertory Theater occasionally put on shows. Another looked like an elegant child’s bedroom; another, an ice cream parlor designed in the style of a Victorian sitting room, with velvet sofas and Oriental rugs. 

At some point, Gendel renamed the toy shop Sweet Dreams Toy Store. Gendel closed the Berkeley toy store in June and died on Aug. 11. 

Vacant toy store storefront with a For Rent sign
The Sweet Dreams Toy Store space is currently for rent. Credit: Joanne Furio

In writing about the two stores on Dec. 18, 1973, The Berkeley Gazette described Gendel’s shops as “the 19th-century come alive, with all the accompanying smells and tastes of candy and the fantasies … created by caring hands.”

In 1997 he opened an Orinda branch of the toy store, during the height of the Beanie Babies craze, which Gendel got swept up in. At the time, he had to shut down the Berkeley store, letting in only three customers at a time until every Princess Diana bear was sold. 

“Thank God I experienced it, that’s all I can tell you,” he told SFGATE in 2022, in an article about an HBO Max documentary on the craze. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. We’ve had fads come and go, but nothing, and I mean nothing, like Beanie Babies.” 

Gendel closed the Orinda store last year. At one point, Gendel also had Sweet Dreams stores in Concord and Palo Alto. 

In Berkeley, Gendel’s wife, Lucia, has moved some of the leftover toy inventory into the candy store, now named Sweet Dreams Candy & Boutique, which she plans to keep open. (It also sells toys and candy on its website.) 

“That’s really good news for the Elmwood because people love that store,” said Burl Willes, a friend of Gendel’s and former Elmwood merchant whose Trips Out Travel was next door to the candy shop. 

Gendel’s businesses “brought such joy and happiness to the Elmwood,” Willes wrote on an online memorial page. “We will miss his cheerful presence in the neighborhood.”

“Gary and I came into the neighborhood around the same time,” said David Salk, who’s owned the nearby Focal Point Opticians since 1976. “He was always very kind, curious about other people, always was interested in my opinion. He would come into the Focal Point and always bring a bag of jellybeans or candy. That was his trademark. He was just a pleasant person to be with. He really was a fixture and an institution in the Elmwood.” 

Joanne Furio is a longtime journalist and writer of creative nonfiction. Originally from New York, she has been a staff writer, an editor and a freelance magazine writer. More recently, she was a contributing...