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(Photo credit: Doug Young; Podcast editing: Christian Gueits)

Gwen Waddington and her mother, Nada Barry, insist on a few things at the Wharf Shop. First and foremost, when you open the wood and glass pane front door and enter this charming, breath-of-fresh-air toy shop, you will be greeted. A smile and a hello, a cheery wave and a welcome. The second, is that they always gift wrap. Not a perfunctory bow and store sticker kind of job. You get to pick your paper and your bow, making each gift unique to its giver and receiver. 

It’s why they decided never to sell their toys online. You must come to the shop and experience the person-to-person specialness that’s kept the Wharf Shop humming along for the last five and a half decades. 

“We still have a lot of parents who appreciate open ended creative play and imaginative play,” says Waddington, “and those are the people who really enjoy shopping here. You can’t feel the wonder of a stuffed animal online.”

At the Wharf Shop, you’re invited to pop your hand in a puppet for an impromptu puppet show; shake a snow globe and watch its flakes dance around in a magical, wintry swirl; pick up and touch the blocks and games and puzzles. It means you have to open your eyes and your imagination, which is exactly what Waddington and Barry are counting on—and know is still needed after all these years.

(Photo credit: Doug Young)

“I’ve always been interested in children. I majored in child development and psychology,” says Barry. Waddington, too, followed in her mother’s footsteps, studying Childhood Education and Art in college. “For years I get fascinated by the children playing at the play table.” 

The play table she refers to has long been a staple of the Wharf Shop—a place for kids to dream, build, think, and collaborate with toys from the shop at their disposal. During Covid, they had to pull it up, but they hope soon to put it back in action. It’s thematic to the kind of toys they carefully curate and sell here. You won’t find hand-held video games or PlayStations or virtual reality of any kind. Just reality-reality.

“For instance, we sell picture books rather than chapter books. Parents can more easily buy chapter books online, they don’t need to look at the pictures,” says Waddington, “But picture books you need to pick up and look through.” It’s the kind of place where childhood stands still, as evidenced by generations of children for whom the Wharf Shop holds a special place in their hearts and memories.

It all started with Barry’s husband, Bob, who owned the Barron’s Cove Marina, which also had a hotel and restaurant. She’d go to boat shows with her husband and spied a few nifty gift things, and thought it might be nice to sell some gifts at the marina. It quickly took off, and Barry decided she wanted to open a full-fledged shop, only expanding on the gifts and adding toys to use her educational background and fascination with children’s learning. The current shop used to be a dry goods and restaurant supply store run by Barry’s mother-in-law. Bob put up a wall petition to divide the space, and the Wharf Shop was born. 

Waddington was only 10 at the time, and fascinated with doll houses, so Barry sold them and the miniatures that went in them, along with her trademark blocks and Thomas Trains, and other items to ignite a child’s imagination. Back then, Sag Harbor was a different place—a factory town which also held the Hamptons’ unemployment office. There was the Bulova Watch Case factory, a Grumman factory, where parts were made for the Apollo lunar lander, and Rowe Industries, which made tiny motors for small appliances and toys, all of which shuttered in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, leaving many residents jobless. 

Starting an old-fashioned toy business was quite a gamble—as was Barry’s move to Sag Harbor. Her English father and American mother left her native England in 1939 at the dawn of World War II when Barry was just 9, moving to New York City. In 1948, her parents built a summer home, designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, in Noyak, overlooking the Shelter Island Sound. Barry’s first marriage ended in divorce, and after so many summers spent there, she found herself drawn to the quiet, small town feel of Sag Harbor for a change. 

“I came out permanently as a divorced woman in 1962. Wow, it was different then! I broke that barrier,” says Barry. She met Bob, they fell in love and married in 1964. And then she set off to break some more barriers.

The year she opened the Wharf Shop, she was invited to join a local merchant’s group called the Round Table. “The Round Table was acting sort of as a Chamber of Commerce. It was a group of men in Sag Harbor,” recalls Barry. “They invited us to join. When they found out [my former partner and I] were women, they rejected us. That’s how we started the Merchants Association of Sag Harbor, which became the Chamber.” By we, Barry is referring to Jack Tagliasacchi of Il Capuccino and Dave Lee of Cove Jewelers, who passed away in 2016. Coincidentally, Tagliasacchi also opened his beloved Italian eatery in 1968 and is the same age as Barry: 92. Both were recently feted by the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce.

Waddington, too, was drawn back to Sag Harbor. She went away to school and wound up working in Boston, but returned to the East End whenever she could. It was here she met her husband, Glenn Waddington, in 1978, a ferry captain on the South Ferry. “I would be in our home looking out at the water and had no idea my future husband was just right over there on the other side,” she laughs. By 1980, she came to work at the Wharf Shop full time. Now, Waddington runs the shop while her mom takes a well-deserved step back. Although, of course, she always pops in.

“It’s good when I’ve been away and come and look at the shop fresh,” says Barry. “And I’m very pleased with the shop.” After all these years, it seems Sag Harbor is, too.