Nada Barry: The Feeling of Belonging ‘Home’

Nada Barry at The Wharf Shop in Sag Harbor.

“The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.” – Coretta Scott King

The door that sticks, the creaky wooden floors, the train table and abundance of educational toys, books and locally inspired gifts; each time I walk in, a wave of memories washes over me. The Wharf Shop has been a part of Sag Harbor for as long as I can remember. Reminiscences abound as I relive the times I visited the shop when my daughter was young to find the perfect Beanie Baby to tuck into the top of her Christmas stocking, or uncover the exciting new Playmobil set to add to her collection. And honestly, I’m not sure how many dozen greeting cards I’ve sent from the shop revealing the most heartfelt sentiments, or how many times I’ve stood at the last rack laughing out loud at the ‘humorous’ cards. Then there were the many gifts for friends and jigsaw puzzles for my aging mom. How convenient it was to run in and have Nada, her daughter Gwen, now co-owner of the shop, or one of their fine salespeople wrap the perfect gift on our way to a birthday party.

The Wharf Shop is a Sag Harbor gem that many of us have counted on for more than 50 years and standing behind all of that inspiration and hard work is Nada Barry, the owner and proprietor of this lovely establishment.

As I entered the store, I walked to the back to greet Nada — the office was somewhat similar to command central — there she was: balancing the books, taking phone calls, managing the mail, directing staff and talking to the UPS deliveryman about the wheel of cheese she had given him for Christmas. No less demanding than the chief CEO of a major corporation and at 89, she handles it all with grace and enthusiasm. It is often suggested that staying active and having purpose helps us to age more gracefully, and that surely seems to be the key with Nada, a very busy, engaged and active person in our community.

“I was born in London on December 2, 1930 of an English father and an American mother. My father was a journalist,” said Ms. Barry. “My mother became a psychiatric social worker later in life. They met at a Fabian summer school in Europe. In 1928 my mother actually started the Chelsea Open Air nursery school in London, which was the first educational nursery school, not just a place for day care. This definitely had a major influence on me in later life.”

The school is still running as a part of the London County Council school system.

“My father became a Member of Parliament, then Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs,” continued Ms. Barry. “He also was involved in the founding of the United Nations as a British delegate. Living in England in 1939, I remember being fitted for a gas mask due to the impending war. It was trauma for an eight-and-a-half year-old. My American grandfather insisted we get out of England, so we moved to New York City. My father went back to England and was in the middle of the Atlantic when war was declared. In New York, I first went to a very progressive school, the Little Red School House. Mother would send my brothers and me to school in our English school uniforms, but we were so teased that she was forced to buy us different clothes. After a couple of years, the school wasn’t suiting me, so I went to public school in New York, Junior High School 3, near the docks. There I got a whole different kind of education. After that I went to Quaker School where I learned to listen and to think.”

In 1946, Ms. Barry returned to England from New York to visit her father for the summer. She traveled on one of the first passenger constellation planes to fly civilians after the war. “It took 17 hours to fly to Gander, Newfoundland, then to Shannon, Ireland and finally to London.”

After attending Mills College for two years in California and finishing a childhood development program there, Ms. Barry went on to Barnard College in New York to complete a degree in psychology-beginning her longstanding interest in progressive education.

Ms. Barry was married and lived two years in Aruba. “That was before there was any significant development on the island,” she said. She started her family and three her children: Natasha, Derek, and Gwen. She later married Bob Barry and continued her family with the birth of their son, Trebor. Ms. Barry now is delighted to have five grandchildren as well.

“Bob Barry built Baron’s Cove Marina, and later I helped extend the docks by hammering nails. Baron’s Cove Motel, the original small building, was acquired by Bob and Frank Barry, perhaps in the late 1950’s,” said Ms. Barry. “Down at Baron’s Marina I tested out selling a few gifts and toys to entertain the children who were there, particularly for rainy days. That interest really grew into the Wharf Shop. The marina was a learning lesson that I had a good eye for buying.”

“The Barry family also owned the building where the current Wharf Shop stands. It was once a dry goods store and had a restaurant supply business upstairs. Earlier on it had sold furniture too. The hardware store across the street was called R.C. Barry and Son’s.”

“In 1948 my mother built the most modern house on Eastern Long Island, in North Haven. It was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. It became our weekend home, and I moved there, full-time, in 1962.”

Ms. Barry now lived full time with her family in Sag Harbor. Interested in child development and progressive education, she met with Harry B. Ward, a former superintendent for East End school districts, asking for better programming for the Sag Harbor School District. “It was at that time that Tinker Topping, Jane Seabury and I decided to start Hampton Day School. We raised money with events such as Truman Capote readings. We had terrible trouble finding a place since at the time schools were to be built of brick, but we found a farmhouse with an upstairs window to use as a second egress and in 1965 the Hampton Day School opened.”

While looking for school leadership, Ms. Barry and her friends took a beach walk with Warren Leonard, head of the Independent Schools Association. “We were told to ask him to suggest a person to head the Day School. He asked, ‘How’s the fishing out here?’ And we responded that the blue fishing was great, and he responded, ‘I think I want the job.’ We never anticipated that he would want the job himself.” Ms. Barry said that after many successful years as a progressive school, numerous kids have come back to say that some of the best education in their lives happened in that school. “Schools are not a one size fits all,” she said. “Different schools work for different children.”

Ms. Barry continues to be incredibly involved in her community. She and Linley Pennebaker Hagen formed the Sag Harbor Youth Committee and structured programs for children throughout the village. She was a founding member of the Merchants Association of Sag Harbor (MASH) which later morphed into the current Chamber of Commerce. Ms. Barry was also active in promoting tourism to secure a more reliable economy in Sag Harbor and remembers a time in the 1960’s when there was a bit of a recession and an unemployment office right on Washington Street. She currently sits on the Education Committee of the League of Woman’s Voters helping to get more young women involved in politics, mentoring high schools students and sending students to participate in government in Albany. Ms. Barry also remains active in local politics, attending every village board meeting and all library board meetings. “My family taught me the importance of contributing to our communities.” She attends countless community events and has become a Sag Harbor icon.

When discussing the changes in Sag Harbor, Ms. Barry commented, “You cannot stay static; you have to move with the times. You can’t stay in a capsule; I was taught we have to grow. It’s amazing what we learn everyday!”

We talked about why she loves Sag Harbor, “It’s my home; it’s my village. I grew up in the city, but I’ve always been a country girl. I love gardening. I feel a sense of belonging here, and I don’t think we realize how important that is.”

We are so very grateful to Nada for her energy, for her commitment, for her caring, and we are thankful that she calls Sag Harbor ‘Home.”