Photo by Peggy Sturdivant
Shirley Barney presides over the gift shop at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, where she helps visitors from all over the world.

At Large in Ballard: Visiting Shirley

Wearing a nametag that spells out just her first name in capital letters, Shirley presides behind the cash register at the gift shop in the visitor’s center at Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. She has been managing the gift shop since a month after she answered an ad in the Ballard News-Tribune for someone to work in the gift shop two days a week. That was 14 years ago.

Shirley Barney wasn’t raised in Ballard but along with the private staff and volunteers at the visitor’s center she functions as Ballard’s primary concierge. “What bus goes to Seattle Center? Where is there a lake to fish? Where do you recommend for lunch?” Between Shirley at the cash register and a staff member always at the information desk they are reigning guides, even as visitors go on hour-long tours or follow the bronze sidewalk medallions to the fish ladder.

Pressed as to why they describe Shirley as “unique” and “one of a kind,” her colleagues in their uniforms and more official name tags look over to Shirley in her patterned turtleneck, white hair and big eyeglasses. “There’s just nobody else like her.”

Jay Wells finally expands on this, reaching out his arms as wide as they can go. “Shirley’s got a heart this big,” he said. “She would give the shirt off her back.”

According to Shirley Barney it’s simple. If a person is capable of working or helping others, they should do it. Besides there’s only so much to do in the basement apartment below her daughter’s house about five blocks north, even while providing lots of childcare.

“She’s retired several places,” Brad Carlquist volunteered from the information desk, making it sound like she wore them out.

Shirley’s daughter moved to Seattle for college and settled in Ballard. “I always liked visiting,” Shirley told me. So when she first retired she moved here from Montana and was quickly introduced by a landlord to Ballard through daily lunches at Scandies on Market Street. She rapidly found work caretaking a local man who had had a stroke and then saw the ad for the gift shop at Ballard Locks. She knew she was well qualified and within a month she was working four days a week and managing the site for Discover Your Northwest, the non-profit that runs the gift shops at National Parks throughout the region.

Shirley doesn’t work the winter months, just April through October, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. She likes working the weekends as they are almost always the liveliest, starting with a plant sale in May, the Elliott Bay Pipe Band on Father’s Day, through every weekend concert and summer holiday. She helps even on days she’s not paid to work, doing an end of month inventory and passing out programs on the 4th of July. Her favorite event is the bagpipers, “They pipe their way in,” she said, looking almost dreamy.

Shirley keeps tracks of her orders on duplicate sheets and three-ring binders at her small space to the left of the entrance. She knows what items are particularly popular from year to year and makes suggestions to Jim Adams, Executive Director of Discover Your Northwest. She’s currently very pleased with sales of a series of postcards and posters from Lantern Press and the wooden jigsaw puzzle salmon key chains. “Made in the U.S.” she informs me.

When she’s not answering questions, ringing up purchases or refunding money to children whose pennies didn’t get pressed properly in the machine, Shirley is busy with her two grandchildren. Especially in the summer, on weeks when they are not at a camp at the Boys & Girls Club, she is a full-time caregiver. Even in the school months she only has a few hours free between when she’s fed them and got them to school and before it’s time to pick them up. However she’s looking for work to fill those few hours during the winter months when she’s not needed at the gift shop.

Each work day she takes a half-hour lunch, phoning The Lockspot beforehand to find out the day’s special and pre-order. She takes her meal there at the bar, often telling visitors seeking a recommendation, “I’ve eaten there for 14 years and it hasn’t killed me yet.”

A few years ago she and her daughter’s family had planned to move to Canada; Shirley had even given notice at the gift shop. It was the realization that neither Shirley nor her family would be eligible for Social Security that ended that plan. “Jim was glad to have me back,” Shirley said of her boss. She was 77 as of her last birthday and plans to keep working, “As long as I’ve got a brain.”

She encourages all the visitors to sign the guest book, hailing them in a strong voice that is more drill sergeant than grandmother -- until she laughs. “I’m so happy when I come back to work in April,” she said, “Because I get to talk to adults!”

According to Brad Carlquist and Jay Wells, who man the front lines of visitors trying to enter with food or approaching with questions, that adult talk often involves Shirley’s favorite subjects, her grandchildren and food. Not necessarily in that order.

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