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Berkeley Merchants Serious About Play

Friday July 25, 2003

In an age when electronic games have replaced classic wooden toys and independent toy stores have made way for mega-marts, Berkeley remains a haven for parents searching for traditional playthings for their children. 

While many towns of comparable size have seen their small toy stores close when a new Toys ‘R Us or KB Toys moves in, Berkeley has retained at least half a dozen old-style stores for toys, games and books. Berkeley also boasts several toy manufacturers and is home to a national expert on the power of play—a woman appropriately nicknamed “Dr. Toy.” 

Berkeley’s Mr. Mopps’ Children’s Books and Toys remains one of the premiere destinations in the Bay Area for all children’s products. The family-run store at 1405 Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave. has housed Mr. Mopps’ for 40 years, a period during which many of the toys it sells have remained unchanged. 

“My son and I used to come in on Saturday afternoons and buy Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys,” said Berkeley resident Laurel Girard while holding her five-year-old grandson, Sam, by the hand. “Now I bring Sam in here and I buy him the same toys. He loves Lincoln Logs.” 

Though the store can be a bit expensive for thrifty shoppers, many parents say the products’ high quality and the good selection keeps Mr. Mopps’ among their favorite places to shop. Children are drawn into the store by the huge stuffed lion that has occupied the front window from the beginning. 

“We can’t walk by unless we have time to go in,” said North Berkeley resident Mary Hart, who was pushing her three-year-old daughter Rachel in a stroller. “Every time she sees that lion she begs to go play inside.” 

In addition to Mr. Mopps’ and other high-end toy shops, the Berkeley area is also home to a number of second-hand stores for children’s products. Toy Go Round, which is located at 1361 Solano Ave. in Albany, is one of the Bay Area’s best destinations for used toys. The store, which has been in the Bay Area since 1976, offers parents the chance to sell back toys that their children have outgrown and buy high-quality used toys for discounted prices. 

Many Berkeley parents say the unique selection and low prices attract them to Toy Go Round: “You can’t usually go in looking for a specific product,” said Michael Felton, who was shopping for a birthday present for his six-year-old nephew. “But if you’re just looking for any fun toy, it’s a great place to discover something new.” 

Some of the best-kept secrets about the Berkeley toy scene are the several toy manufacturers that operate out of the area. One of the biggest and most well-known of these toy makers is Pamela Drake, Inc. (PDI), the company that makes the popular Woodkins toys that have won many “Best Toy” and “Toy of the Year” awards since their inception in 1998. 

Berkeley resident Pamela Drake launched her company with a “Paint-a-Snake” craft kit in 1994. The wooden snakes with the simple design soon gave way to the Woodkins dolls, which PDI public relations manager Pat Linn said became more popular than anyone involved had predicted. 

Though the Woodkins dolls are made from little more than two pieces of wood and a few scraps of brightly colored fabric, the design became a favorite with young children—first in the Bay Area and more recently across the country. The dolls use a sandwich board design with a cutout of a person on the bottom piece of wood. Children can place squares of fabric between the boards to create several types of clothing for the dolls. The Woodkins kits also come with different magnetic faces, which Linn said helps children with comprehension of emotion and feeling. 

“My daughter hardly plays with anything but her Woodkins,” said Berkeley mother Patricia Sanchez while standing in line with a new Woodkins toy at Mr. Mopps’. “They’re wonderful toys.” 

Berkeley resident Dr. Stevanne Auerbach, known as Dr. Toy, emphasized Woodkins’ simple premise as a quality that makes it an award-winning product. 

“Woodkins are colorful, lightweight and easy to play with,” Auerbach said in her “100 Best Toys” report in 2002. “They offer a new form of play with a classic feel.”  

Auerbach’s recommendations come with a lifetime of study about toys to support them. After earning a degree in education and psychology from Queens College in New York, she worked toward a doctorate in child development and child psychology at the Union Institute at Antioch College in Ohio. Auerbach worked in the U.S. Department of Education under presidents Johnson and Nixon, and continues her work today at her Institute of Childhood Resources, a Berkeley-based nonprofit she founded in 1975. 

Auerbach has since become one of the foremost national authorities on the best toys for children. She is a regular on national talk shows and in parenting magazines, especially near the holiday season. Her “100 Best Toys” and “Best Classic Toys” lists are perennial favorites with parents around the country. 

Auerbach said the high numbers of toy manufacturers and classic toy stores in Berkeley is in part attributable to its role as a college town with many young families. 

“Berkeley offers what every community that has a strong mix of university and diversity offers, but is just better than most,” she said. 

Most parents agreed. 

“Berkeley is such a great place for toys,” Girard said. “It’s so refreshing to see a place that has gotten away from the huge Toys ‘R Us stores.”