When Sam Chammas opened Whistle Stop Bar 10 years ago, South Park wasn't the cutesy, dog-friendly hipster 'hood it is now. It was kind of shady, especially late at night. The building at 2236 fern St. was sort of in shambles, too (someone had started a big remodel project but never finished).
But Chammas decided to take a risk. He bought the place, fixed it up, named it after an old gay bar that was housed in the same building in the '70s and '80s and, like The Little Engine That Could, started slowly, stayed optimistic and eventually built enough momentum to keep the bar afloat.
The Whistle Stop was the first solo effort for Chammas, who also owns Live Wire in University Heights and Station tavern in South Park. He says he had some fun figuring out what could and couldn't fly in the bar biz.
“When you have a place that's just yours,” he says, “for better or worse, you can just kind of let your freak flag fly.”
Some freakish things—the 45-vinyl jukebox that looked a lot better than it worked and the no-TV rule—have disappeared over time, but other decisions helped make the bar the favored local hangout it's become. A knitting night; art exhibitions; quiz and board games—Chammas opened up Whistle Stop to activities and events that were outside the norm for bars and clubs at the time.
“I'd see things that coffeehouses do and say, ‘Why can't a bar do that?'” Chammas says. “We were one of the first bars to do art shows and stuff like that.”
Whistle Stop's 10th-anniversary celebration, 10 Years, 10 Nights, started last week and continues through May 29 with events like the fashion-friendly Commune Wednesday, live performances presented by literary super-troupe So Say We All on Thursday, an all-day music fest on Saturday and more.
CityBeat wanted to put together a “10 things you might not know about the Whistle Stop” list to help mark the occasion, but we could only come up with five really good ones:
1. The words “Club Cult” and a picture of a bat are carved into the cement near the jukebox.
2. The bar serves a mean spicy-bean martini.
3. The Fremonts played the first-ever live show.
4. Artist and former bartender Mike Lucena painted the big train mural inside the bar. Lucena is now a pretty well-known tattoo artist in Brooklyn.
5. A little toy train used to circle around inside the bar back when it was the Whistle Stop under another owner. Chammas says he might bring back the train for the 15-year anniversary party.