A Half-Century of Making Kids Smile at the Wharf Shop

Dede O'Connell, photographed at The Wharf Shop in Sag Harbor on Wednesday, 4/3/19. Michael Heller photo

Nada Barry still remembers the first time she met Dede O’Connell, nearly half a century ago. Ms. O’Connell, a teenager at the time, walked through the doors of The Wharf Shop with her mother, looking for a summer job.

“I can visualize Dede walking into the shop, and her mother standing behind her asking if we had a job for her,” Ms. Barry said. “I don’t know if Dede opened her mouth. She was very shy, but we taught her how to do the register, and over the course of years, she’s a changed individual.”

Ms. O’Connell did not know that day that she was about to embark on a career that would last her entire life, and come to define who she is, making her one of those instantly recognizable faces in a village that still, despite so many changes, remains defined by a mom-and-pop sensibility, where longtime small business owners and their most loyal employees have a kind of elevated status.

Ms. O’Connell, now on the cusp of her 66thbirthday, spoke earlier this month about her nearly 50 years of service (48, by her calculations) working at The Wharf Shop. During that time, she developed from a painfully shy teen who had trouble calculating change for customer transactions, to being an invaluable part of what her employers — Ms. Barry, 88, and her daughter, Gwen, Waddington — lovingly call a “triumvirate” running the store.

Ms. O’Connell first started working at the Wharf Shop during a time when it would still close at 1 p.m. on Sundays and for several months during the winter. It was more of a general store than gift shop at the time, with a number of housewares and bed linens for sale along with gifts for both children and adults. Over time, it became clear that Ms. O’Connell’s specialty was in designing displays, arranging toys in the shop window in that kind of enticing way that makes a child tug at their parent’s hand and drag them to the front door. More of Ms. O’Connell’s handiwork was inside as well, as she was in charge of setting up the toy train table and the dollhouses, two of the store’s biggest draws. Ms. O’Connell would build the dollhouses at home, her twin daughters, now 30, watching over her as she painstakingly assembled roofs, floors and walls before arranging the many pieces of tiny doll furniture, from beds and dressers to impossibly miniature teacups and dinner plates, creating an entire world children could immerse themselves in whenever they visited the store.

Her innate ability to create those kinds of displays that have made The Wharf Shop such a draw over the years for children and parents alike has been one of her biggest assets as an employee.

“She’s extremely hands-on and can build or fix anything,” Ms. Waddington said. “She has a knack for throwing together items to make an appealing window display. And she’s looked after the physical shop, with creating actual structures as well as doing the displays.”

Ms. O’Connell says she takes pride in making those displays, and the fruits of her labor become clear every time a child runs into the store and plays with the trains or dollhouses, often with parents or even grandparents who, years ago, had played with those same items themselves.

Ms. Waddington added that being such a beloved and longtime employee of the store has given Ms. O’Connell a place of import in the community. Connecting with people inside the store helped push Ms. O’Connell to be more active in the larger Sag Harbor community while outside of it. Ms. O’Connell has been a longtime active member of the Chamber of Commerce and is currently on the board of directors, working on the windmill committee and also providing help during the holidays, particularly setting up the town’s meet and greet with Santa Claus. She cites the influence of Ms. Barry as her reason for pushing out of her comfort zone in that way. Ms. Barry was one of the original founders of the town’s Chamber of Commerce, inspired to start it in the 1960s, after an all-male businessman’s roundtable that existed in the town declined to offer her and her former business partner membership when they realized they were women. Ms. Barry then founded the chamber along with Jack Tagliasacchi, owner of Il Capuccino, and the late David Lee of Cove Jewelers.

“Nada instilled in me that community service is important,” Ms. O’Connell said. “She’s been a real mentor to me; she’s really taught me about life and being community minded.”

Ms. O’Connell said she never intended to work at The Wharf Shop for as long as she has. It certainly wasn’t on her mind all those years ago, when she simply needed a summer job to fill the hours. Now, people around town all know Ms. O’Connell, even if they don’t know her name — “You’re the lady from the Wharf Shop!” is a common refrain she’s heard over the years. It’s a moniker she says she wears proudly, one she hopes to continue to wear for many years still, joking that she will probably end up being “a little old lady in a walker here.”

“It’s an institution,” she said. “And I like the fact that I’ve been part of the institution.”