Quite a ‘story’

The visitors are just stepping inside Talk Story Bookstore when Ed and Cynthia Justus greet them.

“You are now in the Westernmost bookstore in the United States,” Ed says with a smile.

One of the customers is a mom with children in tow.

“Would you like to see the young people’s section?” Ed says. “We do have one.”

The kids nod excitedly and follow Ed. Meantime, Cynthia tends to two older couples who arrive together.

“Aloha, welcome,” she says. “Have you been here before?”

Both couples answer, no, this is their first time, so Cynthia quickly outlines that the store carries new and used books, what’s popular, what’s written by locals, and asks if they’re after anything special. Minutes later, the group, with Cynthia in the center, is laughing, joking and carrying on like best friends.

As more customers meander in and spread out, Ed and Cynthia chat with them, share stories and ask how the day is going. Cynthia points to the water cooler and cups behind the front door.

“It’s a hot day, so don’t forget, keep yourselves hydrated,” she says.

For the next hour, each time it appears Talk Story’s owners can take a break, there are new arrivals. After milling about the store, wandering up and down aisles, some finally amble up to the cash register. There’s more conversation.

“That’s $10.40 altogether,” Cynthia says to a person with a few books on the counter. “If you have a $10, I’ll take that.”

“How about $3?” she says to another when he holds up a book and asks the price. “It’s seen better days.”

Eventually, on this sunny weekday afternoon, more folks with books in hand make their way out the door, but not before pleasantries are exchanged.

“Are we going to see you again before you go?” Cynthia asks.

“No, we’re leaving,” a woman answers.

“Well, have a lovely, romantic next day,” Cynthia says with a smile and laugh.

Finally, the bookstore is quiet. Ed and Cynthia stand and share a knowing glance. This day is off to a great start.

“That’s the best part right there,” Cynthia said.

The two have been operating Talk Story since it opened 10 years ago. Today, it’s one of Kauai’s most well-known businesses, a growing one, too, that attracts locals and tourists. It is, for some, their favorite bookstore in the world. In an era when bookstores are supposed to be on the decline, Talk Story is writing chapters of success.

“How” is not as complicated as you might think.

Ed and Cynthia stick with what works: friendly service; fair prices; a welcoming, comfortable atmosphere that invites customers to roam and converse. For its limited room, the store seems spacious. It is diverse and organized.

And, oh yeah, also on that list of what works: good products. Talk Story sells books. Lots of books. New and used. Rare and collectibles. The store also sell some specialty items like candles, CDs, record albums and comic books. But books are the bulk of their business. They estimate there are around 100,000 books in their 1,550-square-foot shop. Around 5,000 used books each month come their way from Kauai alone, and the owners of Talk Story personally review and decide which ones to place on the shelves.

They love helping people find what they need and equally enjoy introducing customers to authors, titles, genres. It’s wonderful when someone discovers a book they had long been trying to find.

“Nobody is too old or young to learn something new, find a new author, discover something,” Cynthia says.

The past 10 years went by too quickly, they say, because it’s been so much fun, an absolute blast most days. Talk Story is a vibrant, colorful place, which might not always be the image people have of a bookstore.

“Cynthia and I are just amazed,” Ed said. “We do the best we can, but I’m just blown away that the community supports and enjoys what we do here.”

Double rainbow

Ed, from Virginia, and Cynthia, from a military family that moved often, met in 2001 and traveled the U.S. They came to Kauai in 2002. Like many, they loved Kauai. But unlike many who visit, they stayed. Never even sent for anything.

“We got here and didn’t see a reason to go back,” Ed said.

They settled in Kalaheo, bought a beater island car and earned money by buying items at garage sales, fixing or cleaning them up, and selling them on eBay.

“That’s how we got started with books,” Ed said.

And that’s how they survived for two years until opening a bookstore at a leased space in Hanapepe and moving to the small Westside town in 2004. Neither had a background in books or retail. It was a struggle early on. They made enough money to pay rent for the store or the house. Not both. Decision time.

Neither can forget the day they were standing on the swinging bridge, looking at the sky and talking about their options. Stay or go? House or business?

“As that question was asked, a full double rainbow appears in the sky,” Ed said. “No exaggeration. It was radiant. I turned to Cynthia, ‘If that’s not a sign. I don’t know what is.’”

They kept the book business, moved all their eBay stuff into the shop and lived in a van. They asked the community to name their bookstore. An answer came: Talk Story.

“That’s it,” Ed said.

By the time they held a grand opening in November 2004, they were selling coffee, espresso, sandwiches and desserts, and even tried international cuisine on Friday nights, along with books. In June 2006, they moved their bookstore to its current home, 3785 Hanapepe Road. They closed the cafe and focused on what they enjoyed most: selling books. Turned out to be a smart decision. Sales have increased every year.

“This whole business thing has been guided, whatever you want to call it,” Ed said.

Inside Talk Story Bookstore

A common question asked of Ed and Cynthia is, “What’s your favorite book?”

The answer is always the same: “The one that you’re buying.”

“It makes them laugh,” Cynthia said. “But really, I’m not a person with favorites. In life, I really like to discover.”

Operating a small bookstore isn’t easy and it isn’t glamorous. The paid staff at Talk Story totals two people: Ed and Cynthia. Their days involve cleaning, dusting, carrying, organizing, pricing and lifting. Without hesitation, both say visiting with customers is the best part of their day.

A constant at Talk Story, besides Ed and Cynthia, is Celeste, their 11-year-old cat. She is the subject of much attention. Once people notice her, usually sleeping on a shelf behind the counter, they want to pet her. Occasionally, she ventures out and lays down on the floor warmed by the sun.

“This is her home,” Ed said. “She’s the boss.”

Both refuse to give themselves too much credit for Talk Story’s success.

“I always say, ‘If I’m the smartest person in the room, get me out of there now,’” Cynthia says, laughing.

“We just do our best to give back as we can,” Ed adds. “People gave an opportunity to us.”

Richard Roach of Kalaheo has been a longtime Talk Story customer.

He recalled stopping in those early days, meeting Ed and Cynthia, and enjoying their shop, their positive energy and their company. They became friends.

“We’re glad to see their success,” he said.

He credits it to a combination of offering a unique service on Kauai that attracts locals and tourists.

“They have a very nice way of welcoming people and encouraging them to browse,” he said.

And finally, Roach notes Talk Story is reaching a market that wants what they offer.

“There are still people who read books,” he said.

Selling books

Ed and Cynthia say they aren’t bucking any trends at Talk Story and point out that hundreds of bookstores have opened across the nation. They say books are intimate. Each customer is different and has different needs. Their goal is to fill that need, which they do well.

For proof, one need just look at the wall behind the main counter, where framed awards and certificates the store has received over the years are displayed, including one for being named one of Hawaii’s fastest-growing businesses.

“We do our best to give them the best deal we possibly can, but we also don’t undercut ourselves,” Ed said.

Books generally are half of the cover price. Ed and Cynthia research the value of every book before setting it out. Prices can range from a few bucks to hundreds for antique books.

Only about 5 percent of their sales are online, which means the shop is the mainstay of their livelihood. For residents who live in Puhi or further east who spend at least $25 at Talk Story, the owners will hand them $5 to help cover gas costs. There’s always a 10 percent kamaaina discount on secondhand books and if you buy four books, you get the lowest-priced fifth book free.

They are not, perhaps surprisingly, voracious readers, simply because they don’t have time.

“We get to read at night, just like everybody else,” Ed said.

But they know, based on experience, what customers want.

James Michener’s “Hawaii” is displayed near the front door for good reason.

“Every day somebody comes in and asks, ‘Do you have James Michener’s ‘Hawaii?’” Ed said.

“Da Jesus Book,” basically the Pidgin Bible, is a big seller, as is “Kauai Stories” by local author Pam Brown. “Kauai: The Separate Kingdom,” by Edward Joesting is popular. There are shelves near the front door dedicated to books on Hawaii, Kauai and those written by locals.

“Visitors are especially are interested in things about Hawaii and Kauai,” Cynthia said.

Like Gloria and Ron Burke of San Francisco. They always visit Talk Story on their trips to Kauai. They love the variety of books, the organization and the conversations.

“We never go away without buying something,” she said.

Andy and Susan Anacker from Northern California stopped in on a sunny afternoon and within five minutes had several books in hand.

“It’s delightful,” he said. “Kauai definitely needs this.”

“I got exactly what I wasn’t looking for and exactly what I need,” Susan said.

Andy departed with a copy of “The Man Who Walked Backward Down the Na Pali Coast” by Stephen McMillin.

“I couldn’t resist,” he said, smiling.

One man, as he was headed out the store with his books, turned back: “Thanks for being here,” he said. “It’s so much more fun than ordering it on my Kindle.”

•••

Bill Buley, editor-in-chief, can be reached at 245-0457 or bbuley@thegardenisland.com.

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