Local residents and visitors are invited to stop by the Shellflair Gift Shop &Shell and Marine Museum this Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. to browse gift shop aisles, visit the free museum featuring thousands of exotic and rare shells and marine life that has fascinated and entertained visitors for nearly 40 years, and to wish proprietor Dorothy Perkins Harrison a happy 90th birthday. Complimentary coffee and cookies will be served.
Admission to the museum is absolutely free, as it has always been. Harrison first opened her doors in the summer of 1979 and still delights in sharing information about her spectacular collection.
Shellflair Gift Shop is located on the corner of E. Ocean Avenue and S. Forrest Street in uptown Westport. Turn west at the only traffic light in town onto Ocean Avenue and go three blocks.
In the beginning
Dorothy Perkins was born in Seattle just six minutes prior to her fraternal twin Estelle on Nov. 17, 1926. Their grandfather, William A. Burtenshaw, raised the girls on his homestead in Maple Valley. A Washington State pioneer, among other notable area achievements, he constructed the first railroad through Seattle.
The twins graduated from Tahoma High School in 1945. Shortly thereafter, Estelle saw an ad for jobs at the state’s then largest banking institution, Seattle First National Bank. The twins took the Black Diamond Stage Line all the way to the ‘Big City’ to apply for work.
75 years at SeaFirst
Both were hired that day and each chose a different career path with the company that would last for a combined total of 75 years. Estelle worked in the real estate transactions and Trusts departments 41 years prior to succumbing to cancer in 1986. Dorothy chose to work in the bank’s Auditing Department, spending the last 12 of her 34-year career with SeaFirst as an auditing officer dealing with the Federal Reserve.
Dorothy married Dennis “Mike” Perkins (same last name as her maiden name) in 1946. Their daughter Darlene Burk, now a Whidbey Island resident, was born in 1948. Mike was a bus driver for Seattle Transit until his death in 1970.
The following year, Dorothy married Arvil “Bert” Harrison, also a Seattle Transit driver, as well as a longtime family friend. Both men were WWII veterans.
Shell business start
While still working at SeaFirst, Dorothy started her own business in 1972 dealing in the purchase and sale of rare shells and marine life specimens. Starting with a large collection of her own – a longtime passion – she added to her inventory by purchasing small lots and entire collections from individuals and museums.
Bert took early retirement from Seattle Transit in 1977 when he and Dorothy bought undeveloped property on the corner of W. Ocean Avenue and S. Forrest Street in uptown Westport. They spent the next year clearing the land and constructing a combined home and retail space.
The following year the Harrisons moved to Westport permanently, with Dorothy retiring from SeaFirst to open her Shellflair Gift Shop &Shell and Marine Museum in August of 1979. The business has been in continuous seasonal operation since, with the exception of several months in 1986 when Dorothy returned to Seattle to care for her sister prior to Estelle’s death. With the assistance of friends, the shop also has opened several weekends this fall.
“Shellflair has been an amazing experience, bringing me the most wonderful joys I’ve ever had,” said Dorothy. Among her favorite memories are dads and moms who bring their children to explore the wonders of undersea life in the museum because they remember enjoying the experience so much when they were children.
“It’s so gratifying to know that they made such great lasting memories when they were young that they want to share them with their own children now,” she said.
Historical preservation pusher
But Dorothy hasn’t spent all her time in Westport concentrating only on her business and museum. As the last surviving granddaughter of a state pioneer, she also has a passion for the preservation of all things historical.
Dorothy was one of several individuals that banded together in 1984 to form the non-profit Westport South Beach Historical Society, with the express purpose of turning the city-owned 1935 former U.S. Coast Guard Station on Westhaven Drive in Westport’s Marina District into a museum to record and preserve the area’s history. A membership drive that summer brought 23 more dedicated souls to the effort and the Society kept growing after that.
The Historical Society seated its first slate of officers on Oct. 11, 1984, with Dorothy elected its first president for a three-year term. She was then elected president again and then re-elected a third time in 1991, serving in that capacity through 1994, a full decade of leadership service.
When not at the ‘helm,’ she served on the board of directors and various committees.
Volunteers step up
Once the Historical Society was officially formed, volunteers spent several months cleaning and refurbishing the building, then filling seven rooms on the first and second floors with local historical memorabilia.
“People that joined the Society were priceless,” Dorothy said. “There was no money. Whatever work needed to be done to get the building into shape, volunteers did with no discussion of cost. If you took on a project, you figured out how to pay for it. Nobody complained about anything. We all just did what needed to be done,” she said.
The Westport Maritime Museum opened its doors in early June of 1985. Dorothy and Bert were active members of that dedicated group of volunteers for more than a decade. Bert passed away in February of 2012 at age 88.
‘On the go’
Despite having slowed down a bit physically, Dorothy is still very active. She works outside in her yard maintaining and adding to her well-kept and artistically displayed container garden on nearly a daily basis, still drives her own car and continues to deal with all the chores and errands related to everyday living.