18 years of blisters, bliss

WAIPOULI — Despite 15 years managing the Coconut Marketplace shopping center, Mary Lou Mendes was laid off after Iniki.

“I had no resources,” Mendes said Monday. “I had no job. This was right after Hurricane Iniki swept through the island.”

Sunday marked the 18th anniversary of Bodacious Plus Size Apparel, a shop opened by Mendes after being laid off from the Coconut Marketplace.

Sunday also marked Tanabata, or The Star Festival, in Japan where simply stated, people make a wish and hang it on a bamboo tree.

The festival, not a national holiday, stems from folklore where the Milky Way separates two star-crossed lovers — Princess Orihime and the cow herd Hikoboshi — the two characters represented by the stars Vega and Altair.

The princess was so forlorn to be separated, she wished and wished to be able to meet him again.

On the 7th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar, the pair is allowed to cross the Milky Way to meet — just for that one night a year.

“She had a wish to be successful,” said Beverly Boiser, an employee who started with Mendes 18 years ago.

Mendes said owning a shop has been a lifetime dream of hers, working on developing parts of the store while employed at The Garden Island newspaper as an account executive.

“I had a dream of opening a plus-size store, and Jean Holmes, the then-editor, helped confirm the name — Bodacious,” Mendes said.

Monday, Mendes’ employees brought her cards, an anniversary lei, cake (homemade, of course) and dessert to celebrate the 18th anniversary of Bodacious Plus Size Apparel, which over the years has grown to include the original Bodacious store, plus five other stores. Five of the six Bodacious shops are located in the Coconut Marketplace, and one, the Kauai Plantation Store, is in the former Yasuda Store near the Pizza Hut on Kuhio Highway.

“It’s been 18 years of blisters,” Mendes said. “It’s been 18 years of bliss.”

Starting in the shop, which used to house Adornments, a high fashion store, Bodacious started out.

The Bodacious Plus Size Apparel grew to the Bodacious Petite Through Plus, and in 1999, Jungle Rain emerged at the Coconut Marketplace, resembling a shop out of Walt Disney’s Adventureland with its patina front and gifts and trendy items to match its tropical adventure look.

The Golden Nugget was added to the network in 2000. Then in 2002, Island Fever, which has since closed, opened its doors in the Marketplace.

“We were rocking,” Mendes said. “The economy was good and business was good.”

An opportunity for a surf shop opened up in 2004 and Nakoa Surf was born.

Two years later, the former Yasuda Store opened the doors to the Kauai Plantation Store, and in 2007 Island Jewels was added to the Bodacious family.

But then, the rocking stopped. The economy crashed. Two of Mendes’ jewelry stores — the Golden Nugget and Island Jewels — were robbed.

“That was an eye opener,” Mendes said. “We got serious about what we were doing and switched to survival mode.”

Island Jewels was closed.

“We are survivors,” Mendes said. “We move on. We move forward.”

She said the biggest part of the Bodacious family are the employees, two of whom have been with her for 18 years. Others have tenure of 10-plus years.

“We’re just a bunch of people,” Mendes said. “We’re not professional retailers. I never did retail, although I did associate with some retailers when I worked at The Garden Island newspaper. We put our heads together, talk things through and keep moving forward.”

At the height of Bodacious, Mendes said she had 72 employees working eight stores. Today, Bodacious employs about 30 employees in six stores.

Gail Nobriga, an employee for 18 years, said the original designs and colors which opened Bodacious is still on the walls, and is the favorite of customers.

“We only recently added several new colors,” Nobriga said. “But otherwise, it’s still our best seller.”

When speaking of employees, Mendes is quick to note the passing of one of her treasured employees of six years,  who was the daughter of a co-worker at The Garden Island.

“We saw her Saturday, and Monday she never came back to work,” Mendes said. “We already miss her.”

After negotiating 18 years of roads, bumps and a crashing economy, Mendes said her most valuable assets are her employees.

“We’re just people who like people,” she said. “I’ll be the first to tell visitor industry people that it’s not what you sell, it’s who sells it. Our customer service has never failed.”

Sharri Negrillo is one of the Bodacious employees, spending time on the craft table linking The Golden Nugget with Nakoa Surf Shop.

“I’ve been working here since high school,” Negrillo, an 8-year employee, said. “This was supposed to be my senior job, but they are so good about scheduling around my classes — even if I’m part time. They work around my other job. When I was in school, they worked around my course work.”

Mendes said with ABC stores taking over the Coconut Marketplace, she is optimistic about the future.

“Beall Corp. is the Marketplace manager, and there are still tough times ahead while they undergo construction,” Mendes said. “But ABC is a retailer and knows the dynamics of retailing. We just want people to know the Marketplace is open. The Coconut Marketplace has added Bambulei to the offering of shops, and recently, the Life Style shop moved here from the Kinipopo. We’re not out of the woods yet, but we remain positive.”

Terry Riopta, a 10-year employee, describes the current Marketplace situation to a person having cancer.

“You have to treat it,” Riopta said. “You treat it with radiation, you use chemo, and if have to, you operate. But in the end, it’s all good.”

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