Talk Story Bookstore in Hanapepe just celebrated its 15th anniversary. In an age when bookstores aren’t supposed to do well, Talk Story continues to go strong.
TGI checked in with Talk Story’s owner Ed Justus to see how he and wife Yuriko keep the customers flowing through their doors.
You just celebrated 15 years with Talk Story Bookstore. What’s your key to success?
Our customers. When “Talk Story” was first opened, I read a old book about success called “Acres of Diamonds” by Russell Conwell. It had a great point that always stuck with me: “If customers ask for something, and you don’t have it, start selling it!” The things that customers ask for over the years has helped widen the range of books we carry that are of interest to people, and because of that diverse array of subjects and titles, that may be one of the reasons why we are still in business today. The other reason I say it is our customers is because they are the ones who keep coming back to buy at our store, both residents and visitors alike. We are grateful everyday for them, because they are the ones who make this store possible to be here and continue to provide for their needs. And many friends and customers over the years have been kind and helpful to us all along the way in making Talk Story Bookstore what it is today.
Aren’t bookstores closing across the country? Borders couldn’t survive here. What are you doing that’s different?
Actually, there have been several national articles recently showing that more bookstores kind of like ours are opening up all the time. What is and has been going away are the big box stores like Borders and Barnes &Nobles (which they had to cut two-thirds of their stores). But those kinds of stores dealt strictly with new books and new products. Maybe what makes ours a bit different from those is that we carry both new books and secondhand books, including rare and vintage books, with many out-of-print titles you would never find in a big box store. One of our goals, regardless, is to try to be as diverse as possible in our selection — to try to have something for everyone. The more unusual or obscure, the better, because everyone’s interests are different! I think another thing is those megastores were in extremely high-rent shopping centers, and we are fortunate to have a reasonable rent and an interesting and iconic building that catches the eye, too. Ultimately, our goal is just to keep things interesting for people, to make sure they discover something new every time they come in.
Do you and your wife Yuriko divide duties? What are your strengths as a team?
We are a team! What could be better than working everyday with your best friend and the love of your life at the same time? We have fun together. While I am handling the sales floor, Yuriko always has creative ideas with display, marketing, merchandise, social media, branding, anything. All the Talk Story merchandise she created has become popular sellers, too. On top of that, she is fantastic at data analysis and I am very lucky to have her 13 years of experience as a model cost controller at Panasonic Manufacturing UK Finance Department! She and I are such a natural team; it is just always fun coming up with ideas, being creative together. We laugh a lot. Never knew what getting along was really like before! I am always very proud of her.
What all do you offer for sale?
Not only do we carry new books, new releases and quality secondhand books, we have expanded over the years to include vintage and antique books, vinyl records, vintage video games, back issue comic books, vintage newspapers and magazines, and some related select merchandise. Even our store cat, Celeste (a.k.a. “The Boss”) has her own merchandise now: “Mochi-Celeste” stickers (“I am The Boss”), and soon enough, a book, too! What we find really interesting, too, is how much people are really loving the vintage books. They have a style all their own, and the artwork on those covers … they just don’t make them like that anymore.
What’s the best part of owning and operating your bookstore?
Again, the customers. 99% of the people who come in are really, really happy with what they buy. It is amazing to be in a business that everyday bring people so much happiness. And the other cool thing is the product; it’s always interesting and different. Being in the bookstore is like having a continuing education; because of the nature of the product, we get to learn a little bit about everything.
Could you share a short story of why you love what you do?
The most amazing thing about running the bookstore is the seemly impossible connections that happen in here. There are times someone comes in and sees a rare book that their family member wrote, and they are amazed that they would find it here, at the “Westernmost Bookstore in the United States”, maybe the last place they would ever expect to find such a thing. And there are so many times that customers have come in and said “I have been looking for this book for years, and I know you won’t have it.” But, they say the name, and somehow, we have it. And that look of joy and fulfillment on their faces in finding that gem is an incredible experience. Makes it all worth it. It is incredible the magic that the bookstore somehow makes happen.
What is the biggest challenge?
Keeping up with the demand! Every week, we bring in a couple hundred new books, and thankfully our new point-of-sale system we acquired this year has really helped us streamline and track every title, so that it makes our reordering much, much easier. David Thorp from Koloa Library has been invaluable in making all that come together and work for us.
Can you share a bit about your background in this field?
Honestly, when I started the bookstore in 2004, I had no background in books, business, or retail. I was 21 at the time, with only a high school education, and my work experience consisted of being a blackjack dealer/roulette operator for an entertainment company back in Virginia, and selling used items on eBay for a living once I came here in 2002. The bookstore really schooled me on everything: retail, business, every subject of books, taxes, government laws and permits, etc., because I had to learn about it in order for the business to grow. I am still certainly no expert in anything, and thankfully I get to learn a little more everyday.
Of all the businesses you could have gone into, why books?
Life presents us with opportunities; it’s up to us to act on them. This was one of those moments. Prior to all this, like I said, I was selling on eBay for a living, picking up things at garage sales and reselling them online. When I moved to Hanapepe in 2004, I had about 3,000 used books and a variety of other items in the house from my eBay selling, and I remember that the storefront space adjacent to where I was living was vacant, and I had started wondering if maybe I could make a better living if all these items I was selling on eBay could also be available to walk-in customers as well. Plus, I felt like maybe some of these interesting things would sell better if I was able to talk to the customer about them instead of someone just looking at it online. That adjacent retail space was not affordable at all, but I saw that one of the other buildings in town had a “For Rent” sign in the window, so I asked the landlords about what they were offering. I really didn’t have any money to make a deposit on a space, but I just followed my intuition that I should go talk to them anyway. So, after talking story with them for a bit, I was shocked when they handed me the keys and offered me a month’s free rent on the retail space to see what kind of business I could make happen in there. What an opportunity, right? So, all the eBay merchandise got put into the retail space, and it became obvious what kind of business this would be: a bookstore with a bit of a curiosity shop. It seemed to make sense, too, since it would fill a need; Lihue had Borders; the eastside had Tin Can Mailman; and now the Westside would have “Talk Story” filing the void of there being no bookstore on this side of the island. Now here we are, the only dedicated bookstore on the island — who would have ever thought? I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity that Elsie and Tom Godbey gave me 15 years ago when they handed me the keys to their empty retail space, because it truly changed my life. And I am also very thankful to my current landlord, Donna Richards, because of the continued opportunity she has provided us with such a unique space for the bookstore to continue to exist and grow within.
What’s the story behind Celeste the Cat Boss?
Celeste was actually my house cat before I started the store. Once the store began, and it came time to either pay the rent on the store or pay the rent on the home, I made the decision to continue the store, and everything from the house went into the store — including Celeste, naturally. After 15 years, Celeste has taken over the store. Her “home” is bigger than ours! She definitely is “The Boss”. And, boy, does she act like it! She even has her own Instagram page, “Celeste_the_Cat_Boss” which has way more followers than our store does! Twenty-two hours a day, she sleeps in her basket behind the desk, and otherwise she screams at us when she wants her treats, and just becomes more popular all the time. It’s kind of crazy; Celeste had a Reddit post that had over 17,000 views recently! And she even has her own sticker line now, “Mochi-Celeste”, and people love it! It means more treats for her. We think she has it good, but what do we know? We’re just the servants.
How do you come by all the books in your store?
The new books and new releases are shipped in every week from our distributors on the mainland. But even all those are hand-selected each week. The secondhand and vintage books, we get from a variety of sources, but 95% of those come from here on Kauai. It is amazing what ends up here. People often bring in their books which we give store credit for what we keep, and people can use that credit toward their purchases in the store. Sometimes estates will contact us, and we might acquire an entire collection or personal library. It all depends on what is. I’d say 90% of our job aside from the sales floor is researching books and finding values on all that comes in.
What is your favorite book? Or, perhaps name a few favorite books?
The one book that is my favorite (because I think everyone should read it because it would change the entire world conversation) is “Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” by Stephen Pinker. It’s the best twenty bucks I’ve ever spent. Granted, it’s 800-pages long, but it is truly amazing. Another one I found really enjoyable was “The Next 100 Years” by George Friedman. Also a great read. But I typically read non-fiction.
However, the number one best-selling book in our store is “Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean” by Edward Kritzler — a non-fiction book about Jews who escaped the Spanish Inquisition and fled into the Caribbean ocean, eventually becoming pirates. Had no idea that this would become the steady number-one seller in the store. And how we started carrying it was because a customer asked if we had it, we didn’t, so we brought it in, and now it is the top book! Who would have guessed?
Do you actually get to spend much time reading?
It’s funny. Sometimes we’ve had people say to us “I would love to have a bookstore because I love to read.” I tell them, “Then don’t open a bookstore; we get to read at night like everyone else!” The truth is, this is a retail business — there is never any lack of things that need to be done, and no time to read. If you want to read for a living, be a proofreader.
Any last words of wisdom?
Reading is one of the few addictions that feeds the mind.
My other one is this: Life is short. Make sure whatever you are doing in life that it is something you are enjoying, that makes you happy.