Ed Justus stood on the Hanapepe Swinging Bridge looking out over the water in October of 2004 with a choice hanging over his head. He was faced with either paying rent for the month on the new bookstore he had just been given the opportunity to start, or to pay rent for his apartment.
He asked for a sign and guidance in making the decision that was a crossroads in his life, whether or not to continue on with the new business venture. It was “right then and there” that he witnessed a double rainbow.
“And that’s when I said, ‘If that isn’t a sign, I don’t know what is.’”
Now, more than 15 years after that fateful day, Justus is the only bookstore owner on Kauai, laying claim to the westernmost bookstore in the United States. Talk Story Bookstore stands as a cultural key on Hanapepe Road, playing a lead role in the town’s rightfully acquired identity as an artist haven.
What do you look forward to in the future for the bookstore?
I guess just continued success. We’re just grateful that people come in and that they like what we have and they continue to use us because the customers who use us keep us in business. I’m grateful because they are the ones that allow us to be here. We’d love in the future to be able to expand and have other Talk Story locations, but we want to get this one streamlined and at top efficiency as possible. We’re working on it. It’s a work in progress.
How have the Friday night art festivals helped in the store’s success?
I’m really grateful for how well the Friday nights in Hanapepe have grown. That was the whole intention back in 1997 when they started it was to draw more people to the town, to draw a variety of shoppers to the town. And now the economy in this town is doing so much better. I think we have finally reached post-Iniki recovery. We got some exciting things happening in town. There are lots of buildings now getting renovated that have been in not great condition since Iniki. The theatre building is getting renovated. This is exactly what everyone in the business part of town wanted, not new development but the redevelopment of an existing thing and bring back what was there. Just recreate the spirit. It’s exciting.
How long have you been the only bookstore on the island?
The last one that closed was a second-hand bookstore in Kapaa. They were there for a year, that was in 2012 or 2013, and Borders went bankrupt in 2011 and then there was another second-hand bookstore called “Tin Can Mail Man.” After a few years they moved their operation to Oahu. From 2007 to 2008 there was a small new bookstore in Hanalei, and they were in business for about a year in a small closet-size space and they went away. In Harbor Mall in 2004 there was a store, “Beach Books.” It was basically a few used books and a front for a timeshare. So you pulled them in with books and they say, ‘Hey look, books,’ and then they start telling you timeshares. So when I called the newspaper back then to do the grand opening article, Chris Cook was the editor at the time, and I go, ‘Hey my name is Ed Justus and we’re having the Talk Story Bookstore grand opening,’ and he goes, ‘You’re not one of those Beach Book places, are you?’ And I go, ‘No, we’re a real bookstore.’ He said, ‘Oh good, because I wasn’t going to do anything if you were.’
What was it that sent those other stores out of business?
For them, I think there was a variety of reasons. I would say the biggest challenge for any retail store for Hawaii, in general, is going to be the cost of the rent. To rent something in Lihue you are looking at anywhere between, if you are lucky, $5,000 to $15,000 a month. That kind of makes it hard for any small-time operation to really get going when you have that enormous cost upfront. Some of them have leases that require you to pay a percentage of revenue additionally, and that depends on the place. Some of them have conditions where you are personally liable for what happens to the business, so not only are you liable, but your family is liable. Where’s the incentive?
Have you been able to avoid some of those pitfalls?
I’m very fortunate that our landlord has been reasonable. It’s something that we have to work at paying, of course, but I’m grateful that we have a really nice space and our landlord is very, very helpful. Also, Hanapepe town is unique in itself.
Can you talk a little bit about the shift towards the arts in Hanapepe?
Basically that all started after Hurricane Iniki. It kind of wiped out a lot of the shops here. Any of the buildings that were built before 1920 just disappeared. Hurricane Iniki just destroyed them. There used to be buildings from the 1880s. So after a few years, there were a bunch of entrepreneurs that were coming in trying to start businesses. So the art galleries started moving in because the rent was really cheap. It was a very depressed economy for this town. So the art galleries moved in and they started in 1997 doing Friday art night. It was a very small-time thing. There was one restaurant open and a few galleries and there were maybe 50 people. A 100 was like bustling in those days, and it slowly grew as more shops started coming in and then other shops would host vendors at their place, so the economy started getting diversified. So now, you look at Friday night tonight and it is just packed with people. We got a few hundred people that come in every Friday night because you got something for everybody. You got the art, you got the food, you got the gifts, you got the music, you got the entertainment. Residents love it, visitors love it. There you go.
What about local authors? How have they played a role in kind of being a part of the art movement here in Hanapepe and in the store?
We have an open invitation for authors that want to do a signing in front of the store on Friday nights. Sometimes we have local authors, sometimes we have regional authors and sometimes we have national authors. Like, for instance, we are having Wanda Brunstetter, who’s famous for her Amish romance novels. So she’s written a few about Hawaii. So last year she came and did a signing. She’s coming back this year to do another signing. But pretty much at least every other week at this point we have authors. Tonight we have a local author, Wendy Raebeck, who’s written a few books. Bill Fernandez, whom most people might know here on the island, he’s written biographies as well as historical fictions (comes for signings).
So why is the cat boss? (Celeste the cat lives in the bookstore with a sign on her basket that reads “I am ‘The Boss’ All proceeds go to me.” She even has her own Instagram page, Celeste_the_cat_boss).
She can clean her backside while everyone is shopping. Only bosses can do that.
Talk Story Bookstore is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. exwith extended hours Friday night for art night. The store accepts book trade-ins for store credit, and the store has everything from velvet-covered editions of “The Velveteen Rabbit” to a signed copy of Jack London’s “Lost Face” that is signed twice by London, with some of the ink personally smeared by the author. In all the shop contains nearly 150,000 books by Justus’ estimation.
Ryan Collins, county reporter, can be reached at 245-0424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.