Gwen Waddington not only divides her life between two interconnected but very different communities, she grew up feeling as much at home in Europe as she did in the USA, where she was born in 1958, living first in the Hudson River valley town of Nyack before moving at age three to North Haven, just across the channel from Shelter Island.
There’s no doubt where her loyalties lie now. “I love coming home at night to Shelter Island because the south side has gotten crazier and busier and the attitudes have become ruder,” she said during a chat last month at her Osprey Road home.
She credits the limited access provided by the ferry — on which she met her husband, took her marriage vows and commutes to and from work — with helping to protect the Island’s slower, friendlier pace.
But you won’t often see the spouse of veteran South Ferry captain Glenn Waddington, a former Town Board member and supervisor candidate, on the Island during business hours most weekdays. She’s over on Main Street in Sag Harbor, helping to run the iconic Wharf Shop toy and gift store founded in 1968 by her mother, British-born Nada Barry, who’s still very much at the helm.
Nada’s mother was American and her father — Gwen’s grandfather — was a liberal Member of Parliament, well known as an editor and writer. Gwen took Glenn across the pond to meet him before they were married “to get the seal of approval from the patriarch,” Gwen said. He died in 1991, the year their son, Morgan, now a senior at Tulane, was born.
Gwen’s Dutch father, Jacob Ebeling-Koning, made sure Gwen and her siblings maintained a connection with his home country, too. Just last year she attended a family reunion in Holland celebrating the 100th anniversary of the union of the Ebeling and Koning families.
Gwen’s parents divorced when she was a toddler and Nada moved from New York to her mother’s family summer home just across the water from Mashomack. She could see Shelter Island. “Little did I know my true love was growing up over there,” she said, “while I was growing up over here.”
Her mother married Harbor businessman Bob Barry, one of John Steinbeck’s pals who owned Baron’s Cover Marina and a hardware store, now the Emporium. Bob’s mother ran a dry good business in the 1832 building where Nada and a partner later opened the Wharf Shop when Gwen was 10.
“I grew up wrapping presents” at the store “or starting to cook dinner” on school days when her mother was working late.
“Every summer we’d leave house and go live down at Barons Marina,” Gwen recalled. With her two brothers and sister, “We’d live on boats, a motor home or the cottage, and we all worked at the marina. It was a wonderful camp experience without actually going to camp. We rented boats; we worked in the snack bar; we collected the dockage.
“And there was a group of kids who would come and spend the summer on their parents’ boats and that became our group of friends.
“When we went trick or treating, there were only three or four houses and we had to walk a mile. One was owned by a dentist with apple trees so we got apples.”
In 1965, Nada and a group of mothers unhappy with the local public schools at the time founded the Hampton Day School in Bridgehampton. Gwen’s entire schooling was at the Day School except for 11th grade at East Hampton High School, which Gwen wanted to sample and aced with honor roll standing, and a family trip through Mexico, during which Nada gave the kids lessons and assignments.
She went on to Bennington College, one of the most expensive schools in the country — which troubled her because she just wasn’t into it. So she went to Boston, where her girlfriend was going to Boston College and her brother to MIT, and supported herself working in a high-end gift shop on Newbury Street, sharing a rental with girls who were students at Berkeley College of Music.
When her mother opened a branch of the Wharf Shop in Pompano Beach, she asked Gwen to manage it. Before that, though, Nada also had opened a branch of the store on Shelter Island, in the building that now houses the funeral parlor. In the summer that’s where Gwen worked and that’s when a certain ferry captain made a point of meeting that pretty girl who came across every morning.
“I think the guys noticed all the women going back and forth,” Gwen laughed.
They dated for a while and married in 1986 with a ceremony on one of the ferries treading water in Smith Cove. No one could hear the service with the engine running. After it was shut down, Glenn worried through his vows that the boat might drift into shore.
He worked the ferry, she worked the shop — and they raised Morgan, who’s in the Marine Corps NROTC program at Tulane now.
“I do feel I am living with feet in two towns, which is a difficult situation, but having had Morgan at school” on the Island from kindergarten through high school, “I was able to become involved in the school and it was the best experience for me. It gave me a connection,” which otherwise can be a challenge here, she said, “because Shelter Island doesn’t have a downtown to meet people,” not like Sag Harbor’s, anyway. “You have to be involved in some sort of an organization.”
She has volunteered at the
— history is one of her passions — and looks forward to the day when she has more time to do more. She and Glenn also hope for the time someday to do more traveling, like the trip they took recently to Key West to visit with Islanders Hoot and Joanne Sherman.
Meanwhile, she remembers the eras of her life according to what merchandise was popular at the time at the shop.
“That was year the Smurfs were popular and Snoopy plush dolls with clothes,” she finds herself saying; “collecting stickers was a whole time frame and the Pogs bottle-cap flipping craze and Beanie Babies was another, with Trolls later.”
What she loves most about the shop is “interacting with the customers and having that chance to please people, to meet them, to satisfy their needs, which is why I would never run an on-line store because that defeats the purpose. It’s not my motivation just to make money.”