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Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Barnes & Noble Closing in Honolulu leaves a community in the lurch: Article by Don Wallace and Donovan Colleps

Every Reader for Himself

Closing Kahala’s Barnes & Noble leaves a community in the lurch.


Confirming rumors, Barnes & Noble’s (B&N) Kahala Mall bookstore will close when its lease expires in January 2014. There are no current reports concerning B&N’s Ala Moana location, but it’s probably a matter of when, not if, management installs a T-shirt store. It’s also likely that our competitive real estate market will prevent any return of a new big bookstore.

Summing up the general reaction was the Ka Palapala Pookela award winner for The Queen and I, Sydney Lehua Iaukea: “Well, I think it sucks.” A recent UH graduate’s regret touched on the paradox at the heart of B&N’s fate: “I used to spend hours in there reading books without buying them,” said Will Caron, assistant editor at the Weekly. “In all those years, I never once felt pressured by an employee to move. They love books and love people who read books.”

The loss of a place for those book lovers affected a B&N employee, who chose to remain anonymous: “Our store has regular, longtime customers. We have a community here. Even authors come here to write.”

Community was the overriding concern of Island readers and writers. Where do we go from here? How will local enterprises pick up the slack? Is it going to be every reader for himself, fighting for table space at Coffee Talk and Starbucks?

Indies r forever

Local booksellers, not surprisingly, stressed that they aren’t going anywhere. “It’s a sad thing that Barnes & Noble Kahala is closing only because they’re not making money,” said Maile Meyer, owner of Na Mea Hawaii/Native Books. “It filled, like all bookstores, a real community need. But Native Books was around before big-boxes appeared, and we’re still around because we’re so intertwined and intermeshed with community. Communities need places to gather, and [to acquire] knowledge and to exchange knowledge.”

Local publishers tended to agree–up to a point. “Independent bookstores are amazing resources; I wish there were more small bookstores,” said Susan Schultz, editor and founder of local publisher Tinfish Press. She noted that larger stores rarely sell books not part of a distributor’s catalog, making the Kahala closure not as harmful to Tinfish’s local editions, such as the recent Jack London is Dead anthology. “Big-box stores tend to be destructive in places where there are also independents”–coming in, selling books the smaller stores sell, and at discounted prices, until those stores go under–“but in Hawaii, they’ve been a good thing.”

An employee at Costco’s Iwilei branch explained their “local books are purchased from local book distributors Booklines and Island Heritage by our corporate buyers in Issaquah, Wash. We do offer suggestions on what local titles to carry in our stores, but it’s pretty much up to the buyers in the corporate office.”

Having the buying decisions of one of the few remaining big-box stores made off-Island only increases the anxiety of authors and publishers. According to Bennett Hymer, his job just got harder. “We will have to work more intensely with the many places that still sell books and find it rewarding to do so,” said the publisher of Mutual Publishing, whose author Chris McKinney won the Ka Palapala literature award for his novel Boi No Good. “We feel for the devoted personnel who have to find employment elsewhere.”

Indie bookstores such as Revolution, Bookends, Jelly’s, R/D at Interisland Terminal and Covenant Books & Coffee can hope for an uptick in sales, but Meyer sounds more interested in the long haul: “Native Books carries on as a place for books about Hawaii and the Pacific, written by Hawaiians and people of Hawaii, and I am only going to recommit to that, and expand that concept of how we exchange knowledge in the year 2013 and beyond, because there will always be a place for Native Books in Hawaii.”

App happy

Is it reductive to lament the loss of free Wi-Fi and cafe tables when we’re writing an obit for a bookstore? Not really; people forget the revolution that B&N and Borders wrought by providing a safe, smart social space.

Could the stubborn ingenuity of Hawaii’s readers, writers and literary impresarios invent a substitute? We can’t count on the library system, extensive though it is; the hours of your friendly public library seem to have been designed to discourage the creation of future readers.

Could a nonprofit entity such as the Honolulu Museum of Art or Hawaii State Art Museum step up and add a few walls of books to go with the stock in their gift shops? It would fill a cultural need–and maybe bring in a few more patrons.

Of course there are those who say that as long as we have screens, there will be readers; the worry is that they will demand a literature of 142-character novels. For now, we can be grateful for the attractive []. Curated by Misty-Lynn Sanico, it’s a site where you can find many books published in Hawaii, as well as links and reviews. But you can’t get coffee there.

Nor can you sip from the free new Honolulu Book & Music Festival (HBMF) app, available year-round on Google and Apple. A brainchild of HBMF event coordinator Amy Hammond, the app has been created by wizard-like David DeLuca, a new HBMF board member as Director of Bess Press and President of the Hawaii Book Publishers Association. “Our intention is for [our app] to become a portal for all book and music news in Hawaii,” emailed HBMF executive director Roger Jellinek.

The app impresses as a way of extending HBMF’s weekend into a 24/365 service. But it’s also a way of combating the virtualization of virtually everything. “We see it as a potential response to the digital revolution in publishing that has severely eroded the one advantage Hawaii’s geographic isolation used to give local publishers,” Jellinek wrote.

What’s missing is the human element. Among the memories that co-author Donovan Colleps has of working in bookstores both in Hawaii Nei and the mainland are the plea of a single mother wanting to find a book on how to help her handle her at-risk teenage son, the quiet request of a disabled man wanting a literal hand to grasp that oversized book about watercolor techniques on the top shelf and the young woman who wanted to find books about lauhala weaving. Her grandmother had passed away a few days before. “Tutu was a great basket weaver,” she said, “but she never got to teach me how to make one.”

Colleps still remembers how it felt to place a large red book in her hands–the weight of it, the design, the way the pages felt between his fingertips. These things still matter, yes?

We must be careful how we answer, because it really is up to us. We already know what the practical people mindful of our tourism economy feel about the matter. To them, reading is best limited to two or three silk-screened words or, even better, a wordless logo.

For us, that’s not a world, that’s a prison.

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