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HANAPEPE, Kauai — When Ed Justus contemplates the state of bookstores today, he thinks of microwave ovens.
“When they came out, Time Magazine said it was the death of the stove,” Justus said the other day. “But no one saw that the market would plateau so there are people who only cook with a microwave and some only cook with a stove and many (more) use both.
“It’s the same in the book world. Most people use both (conventional books on paper and digital versions) and I’m grateful to digital readers because they got people to read more.”
Justus is not just any book fancier. As it happens, he owns Kauai’s only bookstore, a distinction he gained after the Borders store on Kauai shut down in 2011. When Borders closed, its loss was mourned as the end of the era of printed communication on Kauai. Talk Story has held out valiantly and refuses to succumb.
Borders’ departure left Justus with two competitors — both stores catering to the used book trade that failed to adapt to the times, leaving Talk Story as the only surviving book store to serve the entire island.
It’s in a rickety old plantation-style building on the main drag in this former sugar town on Kauai’s west side. Hanapepe has tried to reinvent itself as an arts mecca and Justus’ store, Talk Story, has become a town anchor business.
He sells both new and used books — a reality that represents a strategy dictated by Borders’ death. Before Borders went under, Talk Story sold only used and rare books, as did the two competitors who have since succumbed.
But for all the talk about Amazon killing off the nation’s bookstores, Justus believes Talk Story proves the truth of the image conjured up by microwaves. “If anything,” he said, “Amazon is a benefit to us because we sell on Amazon, too.
“Amazon completely changed the business model. Before that, it was just second-hand. But suddenly there was this huge demand for new books,” he said. “We had never had that kind of demand before. It helped the business grow and be more diverse.”
“We’re not just a new book store and when you sell only new books, you can’t compete with Amazon, which sells at close to wholesale.”
For Talk Story, the culture of going to a physical bookstore remains very much alive. Tourists often make the trek to the store a regular stop on every trip to the island, he said.
Justus believes that the crowded shelves of his small shop contain about 150,000 books — a number that counts many skinny works like vintage comic books that don’t take up much space.
Proudly, he pulled from behind the front counter a first edition of Jack London’s “Lost Face,” published in 1910 — signed in two different places by the author. It’s $2,500.
Then there’s “Dr. Kellogg’s Autobiography and Explanation of Clairvoyance,” from 1869.
But the hottest work, Justus said, is a 2009 nonfiction volume called “Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean,” by Edward Kritzler. The book’s brief high water mark was the No. 4 position on the Los Angeles Times best seller list. It was widely savaged by critics and Justus has no idea why it sells so well on Kauai, but he said it has been Talk Story’s most popular book for a year.
“People think it sounds like a Mel Brooks film,” he said of the book’s title. “They’re fascinated by it.”
Kauai guidebooks are a constant seller — as they would be in a tourist market. “Kauai: The Separate Kingdom,” by Edward Joesting, also does well because it is the only comprehensive history of the island.
Justus founded Talk Story in 2004. He had moved to Kauai from Virginia two years before and was making his living selling on eBay. Selling used books, as he did originally, seemed to follow naturally. It just kind of happened, he said, and before he knew it, he was trying to figure out what to call his bookstore, ending up with “Talk Story” because the name plays on local Hawaiian culture.
He estimates his business is about 60% tourists and 40% locals, though there is a small sliver that is internet-only because he lists his titles on Amazon, where people searching for very obscure things occasionally find them. Those customers can be almost anywhere in the world.
The death of Borders upended Justus’ business model. Talk Story had dealt exclusively in used and rare books, but demand for new books started to pick up almost immediately after Borders closed.
“The reality is that there are more book stores opening up all the time,” he said. “This business is about adapting to the changes in the market.
“I think it’s kind of cool that there is growing interest in what I call the analogue experience. There is no way you can replicate reading a physical book digitally.”
Justus uses a distributor of new volumes that bookstores across the country rely on and Talk Story’s sales today are, he said, about evenly split between new and used volumes. “Ninety percent of the second hand stock we source right here on Kauai,” he said.
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