The Wharf Shop In Sag Harbor Turns 45

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In a landscape of law and real estate offices, banks and boutiques, toys stand out.

At The Wharf Shop on Sag Harbor’s Main Street, filling the niche for quality, educational toys, along with greeting cards and unique gifts—scrimshaw, anyone?—is a proud tradition. The store will celebrate its 45th anniversary this Saturday, June 1.

“We could have sold out to a bank years ago, but we feel we’re important to the community, to Main Street, which I love,” explained Nada Barry, the store’s founder and now co-owner with her daughter, Gwen Waddington, during a Memorial Day interview in the store’s rear office.

“We’re now in the third generation of children,” observed Ms. Barry, noting that grandparents who visit the store shopped there when they were young.

Customer service, gift wrapping, an eye toward stocking always-clever gifts and staying open seven days a week are among the secrets to the store’s longevity, according to the mother-daughter pair. Those, and a dose of her own stubbornness, Ms. Barry added in a whisper with a giggle.

The Wharf Shop has occupied the same building on central Main Street since its founding in 1968. A blue wooden sign sporting the store’s name and whale logo hangs over the sidewalk. It lists toys, gifts, miniatures, jewelry and stationery.

The inside is chock-full of whimsy made, when possible, in the USA. Meticulously crafted dollhouses—one of the shop’s specialties—including a lighthouse, occupy the upper shelves. Miniatures of everything from British soldiers to bathtubs are for sale, as are books (many with an aquatic theme), blocks, trains, planes and automobiles. There are stuffed animals and hard animals (horseshoe crabs, hermit crabs and horses), swim goggles, beach buckets, even a tiny New York City subway car complete with announcer’s voice. And, of course, there are lots of cards, post- and otherwise. One of the biggest changes over the years has been the addition of battery-operated toys.

Sterling silver charms of anchors, whales and ship’s wheels and more, are among the jewelry for sale. Nods to Sag Harbor’s whaling past are everywhere. Nowhere is this more evident than in the scrimshaw—carvings or engravings on whalebone or its likeness.

Ms. Barry, a youthful 82 with signature long silver hair, often braided, is a native of London, England, but has been a fixture in the Sag Harbor community for decades. Pinned to her navy Wharf Shop apron on Monday was her philosophy in a nutshell: the word “WHINING” in a red circle, slashed out.

As Ms. Barry spoke of her store, Ms. Waddington passed back and forth, colorful mesh nets in hand one minute, a live-butterfly garden toy the next. Ms. Waddington, 55, joined her mother full-time in the business in 1980.

“We’re not just a specialty toy store,” Ms. Waddington said. “We’re not a card shop. We have a unique gift …” Her mother finished that thought: “We pick out carefully the variety of products that we sell.”

The Wharf Shop was named for its proximity to Long Wharf, before there were shops on the wharf; a first-choice name, which Ms. Barry says she has long forgotten, was not approved by the state. Ms. Barry started the business upon identifying a need for more educational toys, not just ones of flimsy plastic. In its early days, she said, “we gave everybody a cup of coffee who wanted it in the morning, and English cheese and crackers in the afternoon.”

The Wharf Shop has provided first-job training for more than 100 “students,” as Ms. Barry calls them, and many of these alumni return to say hello when in town.

On Memorial Day, Rachel Dickstein, 43, of Brooklyn, was one. With an American flag under an arm and a teacup in hand, she came in with her almost-4-year-old daughter, Anya Eskin, and bought a doll.

“I just feel like this town is going to be just clothing stores up and down the strip unless you actually support the stores that have been here a while,” she said. “I think the fact that kids still need toys, that’s a good thing.”

Ms. Dickstein worked at the store the summer she was 15, in 1985, and still recalls handling money and learning to work with customers. “I think it was a good step to becoming a grownup,” she said.

Ms. Barry beams with pride when she talks of her so-called students, many of whom realized for the first time on that job that taxes get withdrawn from their pay.

“We were very insistent that they be on time—we taught them a lot of different sorts of skills,” she said. Those skills included opening and pricing merchandise, welcoming customers and even cleaning the restroom. “We all do everything,” Ms. Barry said. “We’re a family-type operation.”

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