Denby Fawcett: Costco's Decision To Stop Selling Books In Hawaii Is A Blow To Local Authors - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

This may not sound like a big deal, but Costco Wholesale has stopped selling books at its seven stores in Hawaii.

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Costco media buyer Alexandria Kanenwisher informed local distributors last month that Costco’s stores in Hawaii as well as Alaska will no longer sell books.

Kanenwisher, who works in Costco’s corporate headquarters in Issaquah, Washington, did not respond to calls or emails seeking an explanation about why Costco halted book sales — and why just in Hawaii and Alaska and not in Costco’s hundreds of other stores on the mainland.

Warehouse managers I spoke to at two different Costco locations here said book sales in the Hawaii stores had been steadily declining and the company decided to sell other faster moving products in the retail space formerly devoted to books. The managers did not want their names used because they were not authorized to speak for the company.

When I went to Hawaii Kai Costco Friday to buy Greek yogurt and coffee, I saw boxes of holiday chocolates, rows of gift cards and artificial Christmas trees in the area where books were once displayed on a long table.

The news is a blow to Hawaii book distributors, authors and publishers. Also, to readers here like me and others who for more than 30 years have enjoyed Costco’s deeply discounted book prices.

Disappearing Book Stores

Arms for distributing physical books to the reading public in Hawaii are slowly disappearing, chopped off, one by one, with the loss of Costco the latest amputation.

Barnes and Noble is the only big bookstore left in the islands with stores at Ala Moana Center and in Kahului, Maui. Borders with six big bookstores in Hawaii, went out of business in 2011. The now defunct Waldenbooks, a subsidiary of Borders, is also gone. It once had 14 stores statewide, one in almost every shopping center.

“Independent bookstores notwithstanding, I wonder if parts of Hawaii are becoming book deserts. Yes, there’s Amazon, but it’s not the same as being able to browse and search a table of books or shelves of books. Local, specific Hawaii titles get lost on Amazon — they’re only found if actively searched for,” says Jane Gillespie, production manager at Mutual Publishing.

Mutual Publishing, based in Kaimuki, has been publishing books about Hawaii for nearly 50 years.

For Mutual and other Hawaii publishers, Costco offered free visibility and advertising for local authors.

“When Costco decided to sell a Hawaii author’s book, the author thought they had really made it. Now the authors will be denied that opportunity,” Mutual’s owner Bennett Hymer says.

Shoppers eagerly snapped up cookbooks by chef Sam Choy, especially when he did book signings in Costco like this one in 1998. Mutual Publishing/1998

Big warehouse stores like Costco attracted customers who ordinarily might never set foot in a traditional book store.

“When people dash in to buy their $5 rotisserie chicken and piles of toilet paper, they might notice a book they’ve heard about and throw it into their shopping cart along with their laundry soap and cartons of yogurt,” says Dawn Sakamoto Paiva.

Paiva is the director of sales and marketing for Watermark Publishing, a local firm specializing in books about Hawaii for the last 25 years. She says people who purchase books at Costco “tend to be casual book buyers,” readers whom local publishers might not reach otherwise. “For these people, going to a bookstore is not part of their regular routine.”

Author Mark Panek, a professor of English at the University of Hawaii Hilo says a book signing he did at Costco’s Kona store gave a quick boost to the sale of his book: “Hawaii: A Novel” and got others talking about it.

“I sold 20 books in 90 minutes at the Kona book signing. We ran out. That’s a lot of books for a guy like me,” he said.

Shopping Bonanza

People in Costco shopping for their weekly groceries eagerly snapped up cookbooks by chef Sam Choy especially when the convivial Choy was in the stores to sign books, says his publisher.

Costco was also a good way of reaching tourists who drove directly from the airport at the beginning of their vacations to pick up wine and food for their timeshare apartments and ended up purchasing locally written books to read on the beach.

“Costco is an essential stop for food and supplies and with our local books, we were able to expose many visitors to Hawaii’s history, culture, and food,” Gillespie says.

For years, University of Hawaii Press made $40,000 to $60,000 in profits annually from Costco stores, according to former sales manager Royden Muranaka. The UH-published “Hawaiian Dictionary” by Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel H. Elbert was a big seller at Costco.

Mutual Publishing’s owner says he is surprised that Hawaii and Alaska were singled out for ending book sales.

“Costco told our office that the elimination of books in its stores had to do with the expense of shipping to Hawaii and Alaska, but that makes no sense because Hawaii published books were delivered locally, not shipped in,” Hymer says. “Costco said also it was because of the expense of returning books that didn’t get sold. But that still makes no sense because there was no shipping expense to return books to us.”

Costco opened its first membership warehouse store in Hawaii at the Bougainville Center in Salt Lake in 1988 before moving that operation to Iwilei and expanding with three other stores on Oahu as well as one store each on Maui, Kauai and Hawaii island.

The company’s store in Iwilei is reported to be its busiest in the world, taking in twice the revenue annually of its 825 other locations worldwide.

Publisher Buddy Bess, owner of Bess Press in Kaimuki, says he was surprised but not shocked by Costco’s decision. He says the book sections in the different stores including Iwilei “were slowly going downhill.”

Bess says at one time Costco was a critical player in determining how many books Bess Press printed.

“We knew Costco had the ability to reach a broader market and as a result we’d print a wider selection of books and high print runs. Without that widespread distribution, it limits and narrows our decision making process on what to print and how many copies to print,” he says.

A Bright Side

Owners of independent book stores told me they were not saddened to hear that Costco was terminating its book sales In Hawaii.

“You wonʻt see me crying ʻboo hoo,’ says Christine Reed. Reed and her husband David founded Basically Books, an independent book store operating in Hilo for the last 37 years.

Reed says Costco was a powerful and unfair competitor. “Costco sold its books to shoppers for the wholesale price we pay for books. Basically Books has to tack on shipping and other costs to its book prices.”

Reed says independent book stores are thriving on the Big Island with a total of six stores selling both new and used books in Kona and Hilo. Oahu has four independent book stores, and there’s one in Hanapepe Kauai.

My next column will be on the resurgence of independent book stores in Hawaii and will consider if the indies are enough to guarantee the survival of physical books and places were readers can browse through their pages to discover new things.

Read this next:

How Hawaii Can Overcome Economic Uncertainty

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

Latest Comments (0)

We have a public library system throughout the islands that makes it easy to check out hard copies as well as ebooks and you can do the process all online. The system emails you when the item is available for pickup, when it is due back and you can even renew online. That said the libraries need to be include some evening hours and saturdays to be open.

Richard_Bidleman · 1 year ago

· 1 year ago

Maybe they could have a smaller section just for Hawaii-published books? But, as the independent book shop owner related, "the demise of Fox books means the Little Shop Around the Corner might now survive".

SleepyandDopey · 1 year ago

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