HANAPEPE — Business at the Talk Story Bookstore dropped at least 70% since the start of lockdown, said Ed Justus, 37, of Kalaheo, bookstore owner and Kaua‘i County County candidate.
“I thought it was going to be more,” Justus remarked. “Our local business was maybe 20% of the time.”
With libraries closed for a time, more residents began stopping in. But the Hanapepe bookstore had to reduce electricity usage, cancel and return new-book purchases and shorten hours to survive. With the help of grants and loans, the business is still running today, but the pandemic has been frustrating.
“It’s ridiculous we’ve had to jump through so many hoops,” Justus said. “We’re seeing businesses close to no fault of their own.”
Justus wants to bring a breath of fresh air into agriculture, affordable housing, residential property taxes and revitalization, he said.
“If what we were doing was working then we wouldn’t be in the situation we are in,” Justus said. “All the answers are here. We have all the ability. We just have to have the will to do it.”
He first ran for council a decade ago, focusing on diversifying the economy, specifically pointing at farming, which, he said, “is the golden opportunity, and it just sits there.”
“If you have agriculture as an additional economic engine, you have additional supportive industries that go along with that,” he said. “Instead of being reliant on tourism, you can have four economies that can help keep us more stable when we do have shutdowns or are cut down on things.”
Kaua‘i produces 10% of the state’s agriculture. Justus wants the county to work toward agricultural incentives, like a multi-year, 0% ag-land tax rate, and helping create water-irrigation infrastructures.
“There’s no reason why we can’t literally be ‘The Garden Island,’” Justus said, noting that there’s nearly 60% of agriculture-zoned land with no agricultural activity on the island.
Because of Kaua‘i’s “island in the middle of the ocean” geography, “it is so important to recognize agriculture as a critical infrastructure.”
“We can grow enough food that we can feed everybody,” he said.
And that plays into vitality, Justus said.
“You have to work to maintain stability,” he said. “And something can easily upset that: a pandemic, war, political instability.”
At a forum this summer, Justus presented this quarantine model with the recommendation of a virologist friend. “I know that we could have reopened the state safely and shorten the quarantine,” Justus said.
In the model he presented, he suggested a single quarantine area. Travelers would be required to take a pretest and another test three days in.
“I think that would help reduce quarantine and allow more visitors to come in instead of just opening the flood gates. It would put more tax rev into state and county. That’s a pretty fair solution.”
The current quarantine, he said, doesn’t stop people from breaking it.
“It takes one person to start a whole bloom of COVID,” he said. “If the quarantine worked, we wouldn’t have had a second shutdown on O‘ahu. If you don’t have a different plan in place then you’re just going to have a third shutdown.
From 2011 to 2016, Justus volunteered on the county’s Charter Commission. He said maybe the county could invoke a provision in its charter that sets it up a home-rule system which allows the county more authority over its own governance.
“I could be wrong,” he said.
Justus rents both his home in Kalaheo and the bookstore.
He said the county has a “duty and responsibility to help create low-priced housing opportunities because its directly responsible for supply” when it comes to affordable housing.
He’d like to propose a reduction in property-tax rates for residential units that are being used specifically for affordable-housing options, and higher rates on vacation rentals.
“As a business owner, I’ve been trying to find a place in Lihu‘e for 12 years,” he said.
He loves his Hanapepe location, he sid. However, Hanapepe, he said, has been left behind after Hurricane ‘Iniki. The county, Justus said, could do more to revitalize small towns. His store is surrounded by decaying, abandoned buildings, by no fault of owners not wanting to fix them up. The roadblock is the cost.
Justus would like to see discounted property-tax-rate periods and assistance to bring back small towns.
“Even if I don’t get elected, I can get these ideas out there,” Justus said of his platform. “What do I have to lose? Nothing. At least I can start a conversation.”
But it’s deeper than just that, of course, he said.
Justus moved to Kaua‘i in 2002. Shortly after the move, he started picking stuff up from garage sales and selling them on eBay, when somebody offered him a storefront. “It naturally became a bookstore and curiosity shop.”
Talk Story has been in Hanapepe since 2006, and the only bookstore on the island since Borders closed in 2011.
“People have been so generous to me to start a business, even getting out of homelessness,” Justus said. “That’s why I appreciate every single day. It’s a privilege to be able to have these opportunities, and I just want to be able to give those same opportunities back. The community allowed me to have the life I have. I want to give that back.”
Looking over his right shoulder, “The Boss,” Celeste, the mascot for the westernmost bookstore in the country, meows.
“The cat, on the other hand, nothing ever satisfies her.”
Sabrina Bodon, public safety and government reporter, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.