Taking Pause Over Whistle Stop Sweets
The small shop in Fair Haven was a hub for kids. How do you feel about today's competition for expensive fun and activity as opposed to simpler, less costly entertainment?
A candy bar, a square slice of frozen pizza and a couple of mis-strummed chords on the guitar was enough to keep kids happy, as Barbara Leslie and a passel of Fair Haven's finest 1970s and 80s urchins saw it.
Leslie and her husband Frank were the owners of the Whistle Stop — the gone but not-so-easily-forgotten fire engine red antiques shop on Forman Street that was a modest haven for vintage collectibles, guitar lessons, a little something to eat and nickel, dime and penny candy to sweeten the day.
Fair Havenites have been buzzing with fond candy and music-laced memories of the Whistle Stop since Barbara Leslie showed up at the Fair Haven Firemen’s Fair and was greeted like a celebrity.
“I can’t get over it,” she said back on the fair grounds. “These things are just so nice to hear from all the kids I watched grow up. And I’m really glad I’m hearing them while I'm still here and can appreciate it.”
And people were more than happy to heap on the accolades. Longtime Fair Havenite Tom Kirman was one of the first to find Leslie on the fair grounds. All it took was a picture and a couple of words about the Whistle Stop on the Fair Haven Facebook page became a font of fan comments about “Mrs. Leslie” and the Whistle Stop.
Frank and Barbara Leslie bought the shop in 1970 and ran it, together, as an antiques shop. Barbara also taught inexpensive guitar lessons upstairs in the place that really was a house-turned-store. Nothing fancy. If you took guitar with Mrs. Leslie, you went to the shop with your guitar and she taught you chords, how to tune your guitar and a little fancy plucking.
Then half of the Fair Haven kids were in the Fair Haven Folk Singers — a troupe of merry little gawky musicians who dressed in checkered outfits and strummed guitars to songs like “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” and “Kumbaya.”
“Two chords. It was only two chords I taught you kids to strum to those songs,” Mrs. Leslie confided after decades. “It worked. You were all so cute and such a pleasure to teach. Who ever knew that so many people would remember that? I’m so grateful.”
And they did … remember. The Fair Haven Folk Singers strummed their way down the street in many a festive parade back in the day and an awful lot of Fair Haven kids have those few songs and C and G chords forever committed to memory.
Then, in 1978, the Leslies decided there was a greater need in the area and one that they wanted to satisfy — providing an inexpensive place for kids to go and hang out for that square pizza slice, a hot dog, a soda and a frozen Milky Way to cap it all off.
“They (Leslies) found out that because of its location between the borough’s two elementary schools, they were attracting more young people than antiques buffs,” a 1978 story in the Red Bank Register said. “The youngsters, with small change or a dollar in their pockets, would visit the shop and purchase small items. ‘They came in just as they would go into a pet shop. They had their allowance and would be looking for something to buy,’ Mrs. Leslie said.”
And, per the Leslies’ purpose, the Whistle Stop became a place where kids didn’t have to spend their entire allowance to hang with the “in” crowd, or even as a loner, and enjoy a little treat. A pinball machine was installed, tables set up and a candy case showcased, and there was a TV. The Whistle Stop had become a kitschy snack bar/social club for kids with antiques and guitar lessons on the side.
And all were bargains.
“Sometimes we would see that a kid was struggling to come up with some change for a little candy, so we’d just give them a piece so they wouldn’t feel left out,” Barbara Leslie said while reminiscing at the fair.
The Leslies also took a lot of time to get to know their pint-sized to over-the-counter height customers by name and habit, like family.
If you walked into the Whistle Stop at peak hours, it was like walking into a house full of kids at snack and lunch times. Mr. Leslie would emerge from the kitchen, joking with the kids and serving up a few slices and “dogs,” and Mrs. Leslie would be asking who practiced and sneaking a little sweets to those who had only a little lint and a couple of pennies in their pockets.
“They (kids) wanted a place to go, have something to each, listen to music and play a game,” Mrs. Leslie said in the 1978 Register story. “They were looking for a place to socialize. Kids do need a place to go … The nicest kids in town come in here. I think the kids do deserve a place where they feel welcome.
"I kind of felt for the kids when they went into a place that didn’t want them, or made them feel inferior. I have watched the kids grow up from the time they couldn’t see into the candy case until they are bigger than I am.”
And, now most of those kids are around or nearing the age Mr. and Mrs. Leslie were when they ran the place.
After Mr. Leslie died in 1984, the shop was sold and a lot of kids’ routines changed with the times and more modern notion that just hanging out was no longer enough in a competitive parenting world; and shuttling from play date to play date and costly organized activities became the more accepted way.
Yes, there are places somewhat similar to the Whistle Stop in purpose, like Fairwinds, Umberto’s and Tavolo. Yet, in this different world, the simple need that the Leslies succeeded in satiating now has different and increasing societal demands.
There are no more pennies pulled out of a pocket for a piece of candy. The kids are mostly eating on Mom and Dad’s credit. And, while they gather and socialize, it’s not long before they’re scooped up and shuttled to organized activities.
What do you think? Is the world lacking without a Whistle Stop?
Are two guitar chord strums, a snack and a hang-out enough to grow on?
Mrs. Leslie, judging by the thanks she now gets, would say, “Yes.”
No matter what your opinion, share your memories of the Whistle Stop with us in the comments section below. We will be sure to share them with Mrs. Leslie. She hasn’t forgotten her “kids.”
* Take a look at the newspaper clip above of the Whistle Stop, with Frank and Barbara Leslie behind the counter and Linda Leslie serving the kids. What’s one thing in this picture you’d never see nowadays?