Denby Fawcett: We Should Support Independent Bookstores. They Open New Worlds To Us - 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.

Opinion article badgeNot many good things have come out of the coronavirus pandemic, but a small and perhaps unnoticed benefit has been the growth of independent book stores.

More than 300 independent bookstores have opened nationwide since the public health crisis began in 2020. That’s according to Allison Hill, the CEO of the American Booksellers Association, the trade organization of independent booksellers.

One reason for the increase is the closure of businesses during the pandemic, leaving behind empty storefronts and good rent deals, Hill said in an email. Retailers also started to experiment with new ways to sell products such as pop-up stores and mobile stores.

“People have discovered these formats as a means to enter into the book industry,” Hill said, adding that a shift in values is another reason more people are supporting independent bookstores and opening stores themselves.

“The loss of life and livelihood that so many experienced during the pandemic has inspired new perspectives for people, inspiring them to finally pursue their dream of work that aligns with their values or that they believe is meaningful to their community,” she said. “During the pandemic we also saw a renaissance of reading … and a renewed commitment to shop local … both of which increased demand for indie bookstores.”

More and more independent bookstores started to spring up in Hawaii even before the pandemic, including one in my neighborhood, Da Shop in Kaimuki.

When Da Shop was launched in 2018, co-owner David DeLuca said he was encouraged to watch other book businesses open on Oahu at about the same time: Bas Bookshop in Chinatown and the nonprofit Friends of the Library, which opened its own used bookshop in Ward Center.

Da Shop bookstore in Kaimuki.
Customers browse in Da Shop bookstore in Kaimuki. Da Shop/Elyse Butler

DeLuca said today’s demographic of 20 to 50 year olds favors more personalized retail experiences in almost everything they buy from handcrafted lattes to yoga clothes.

“The book industry, and in particular indies, strongly cater to this and really provide communities with voices, stories and books that fit and meet those needs. It is a more curated experience and most importantly it is human-to-human contact,” he said.

On Amazon.com, you can get cheaper books but you have to know what you are looking for. There is no human being to guide you.

“We are in touch with what our customers want. Big corporate booksellers only offer books that appeal to many different kinds of people in a wide variety of locations, but we work hard to find books of particular interest to our local audiences,” said Pat Banning, owner of BookEnds, an independent bookstore in Kailua.

Another big benefit of the indies is they offer their customers the joy of discovery.

On a recent foray into BookEnds, I ended up buying a book I had never heard of: “A World in a Shell: Snail Stories for a Time of Extinctions.” The book sounds esoteric, but author Thom van Dooren uses skilled writing and photos of Hawaiian land snails — the most threatened species on the planet — to make a strong case for why we should care about their possible extinction and survival. Without the chance to hold this book about snails and look through its pages, I doubt I would have bought it, let alone known about it.

BookEnds small book sellers stores Denby Fawcett
Pat Banning, owner of BookEnds, says independent bookstores are more in touch with the individualized needs of customers. Courtesy: BookEnds

I also walked out of BookEnds with a used copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets I found sitting in a pile by the cash register and bought for $5, seduced by its beautiful illustrations by Mary Jane Gorton. I also found a used copy of Graham Greene’s classic 1955 Vietnam novel “The Quiet American.”

BookEnds, like many other independent stores, features both new and used books. Owner Banning says selling used books allows her to offer bargains and is an inexpensive way to build a broader section of books for customers.

“You never know what you will find here. It is like a treasure hunt. Where else can you find a book on bullfighting or a book on how to make poison darts?” she laughs.

The resurgence of brick and mortar bookstores is happening on other islands, including Hawaii island, which now has six independent bookstores.

Brenda McConnell, who owns Kona Stories with her business partner Joy Vogelgesang, is uncertain why so many independent bookstores have sprouted up on Hawaii island. She speculates it may be because the island’s population centers are far apart. “If you live in Hilo, you are not going to drive all the way to Kona to buy a book. It’s too far away. You need your own store,” she said.

The increased support for indies in Hawaii is taking place at the same time big corporate book sellers are disappearing from the market. Barnes and Noble is the only big bookseller left in Hawaii with stores in Ala Moana Center and Kahului, Maui.

Costco announced in September that it will no longer sell books in its seven Hawaii locations. Borders —once with six stores in Hawaii — is gone after the company went bust in 2011. Waldenbooks, which had 14 stores here, is also gone.

“Independent book stores are more important than ever. If there is a silver lining to Costco’s end to book selling, it means the independents can pick up some of that business,” said Bennett Hymer, owner of Mutual Publishing, a firm in Kaimuki specializing in the works of local authors.

There is not a single independent bookstore on Maui.

Ed Justus owns the only full-service bookstore on Kauai: Talk Story in Hanapepe. Justus said it is not just older readers supporting his store. He has been consistently amazed to discover that the very young are the most excited and enthusiastic customers — youth from 14 to 20 years old.

“They grew up with electronic media and are fascinated by physical media,” he said. “They come in the store and spend hours browsing through hard copies of books and vinyl record albums. They like to hold books and experience the smell of the print and the joy of turning the pages.”

“On the internet you go directly to what you want to read but exploring physical books and records in a bookstore is an entirely different experience. You never know what will turn up,” he said.

BookEnds small book sellers books stores Denby Fawcett
Bookstore owners say their friendly settings offer a way to interest young children in books. Da Shop/Elyse Butler

Justus has been in business for 18 years, selling 25,000 titles out of what used to be the old Yoshiura Store, a general merchandise emporium. He believes the key to his success is keeping a diverse and unusual inventory of new and used books.

“I try to find out what the customers want to read about to keep it fun for them,” he said. “We all are geeks about something.”

I hope owners of the independent bookstores are right when they say they are here to stay, even when the soaring prices of the current inflationary economy might make some of their customers turn instead to cheaper electronic books or start to order physical books only from Amazon.

“Independent stores offer a friendly environment, a place for kids to come to enjoy books. We are able to help readers locate difficult to find books. And offer other services such as giving tourists recommendations of where to eat,” said McConnell of Kona Stories bookstore.

Christine Reed, who owns Basically Books in Hilo, echoed the sentiment: “Books have always been treasures. They are precious. There will always be bookstores where you can hold books and look inside them. And someone to help you when you ask: “I am looking for the perfect gift for a 3 year old.”

Interestingly, today’s indies that seem so trendy and modern are actually the old-fashioned way we bought books before the onslaught of Amazon. We have come full circle.


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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)

I live in Hilo and I love the staff at Basically Books. They have the latest on Polynesian and Hawaiian culture or will order it for you. The last book I bought from them was less expensive than Amazon so don’t assume Amazon is always cheaper.

Koaniani · 3 weeks ago

So many of the books I’ve purchased over the years have been found while browsing a bookstore. Now many of those same books are slowly being deposited in Little Free Libraries. Share the wealth!

manoafolk · 3 weeks ago

If your looking for a good deal on a book, used book stores are the ticket. Some store personal will also make recommendations. Me, I'm a library "junkie" and love going to the library. That said, I still get most of my content (books and movies) by first requesting them online. When it is available to pickup I receive an email. When it is due back, I receive another email. Great system. Hats off to Stacey Abrams, our state librarian, who is very tech savvy.

Richard_Bidleman · 3 weeks ago

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