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THE LOOS OF THE LOOS

by CAROL PUCCI

Seattle Times assistant business editor >Reprint from the Seattle Times Sunday, July 16, 1995

NORTH BERWICK, Scotland - People come to this seaside village - 25 miles east of Edinburgh - to play golf, walk the windswept beaches, relax in the pubs . . . and go to the bathroom.

The little red brick building on Quality Street that houses the town's public restrooms has been an off-beat tourist attraction ever since British tourism authorities last year officially declared the bathrooms the cleanest public toilets in all of Great Britain.

"Cleaner than Harrod's," says a glowing Irene Olesky, the chief attendant.

She opens a scrapbook of photos of herself and a partner holding their "U.K. 1994 Loo of the Year" award from the British Tourist Authority, and recalls the night the mayor took them out to dinner to celebrate.

It all started last summer when the district council of East Lothian, the governing body for North Berwick, decided to replace the town's run-down toilets. They replaced a concrete bunker with a little red brick building that looks like a miniature house.

The pitched slate roof, banks of shiny white sinks, mirrors, baby-changing tables and four red and gray formica stalls cost the district $210,000. To protect their investment and make things safer for visitors, the city fathers decided to staff the spiffy new restroom with paid attendants.

They hired Irene and another worker to share the job. After the grand opening, Irene and her partner resolved to keep the restroom - or the "loo" in British slang - looking like new.

Vases of yellow marigolds and red-and-white carnations line the rows of sparkling white sinks. Color posters of pastoral Scottish scenes decorate the walls. There's a "family bathroom" in an alcove off the women's section outfitted with a fold-down changing table.

There's even a guest book where visitors can record their impressions.

"They write about having picnics in the toilets and say things like, `so clean you can eat off the floor'," said Irene.

When some male visitors found that the men's room had plants instead of flowers, they requested flowers. The attendants obliged by bringing in carnations and marigolds from their own gardens.

"In December, we buy wee Christmas trees," Irene said. And sometimes townspeople will make a donation, such as the woman who brought in a jasmine plant because her husband was allergic to it.

Irene watches who comes and goes by monitoring a closed-circuit T.V. from behind a one-way mirror in a small alcove off the women's room.

During lulls, she comes out and scrubs down the stalls, the tile floors and sinks.

"If you keep on top of your work, it's easy," she said. Irene and her partner each work four days on and four days off, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the summer, with a two-hour break, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the winter when the bathrooms are open.

There's no charge to use the North Berwick facilities. There's not even a plate for tips. But Irene appreciates it when visitors take a minute to sign the guest book.

"You get some of the young ones writing obscenities," she says, "but at least they're doing it in the book and not on the walls."

© Seattle Times Company 7/16/95

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