An island institution struggles to stay afloat


POSTED: Sunday, July 19, 2009
This story has been corrected. See below.

There are certain stores that define the character and singularity of Hawaii. They serve as my local landmarks, signs that no matter what imported shifts or bland mutations of retailing come about, all is right in the world because they endure.

The Hula Supply Center has been one of them.

The array of hula implements and vibrant-colored apparel in the windows of the curved building in the long-established, modest Moiliili neighborhood spoke to an island identity through most of my life. That I had gone to grade school with one of the owners deepened the attachment.

Last year, the store moved from the corner site it had occupied since 1954 to a smaller space one step ewa on King Street, a charming pink building that looked like a miniature version of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

The economy was already weakening, but owners Syl and Mike Op were optimistic, going in with other local retailers to open a shop in Waikiki and keeping up with strong online sales.

But earlier this year, I noticed the store was empty, its display window stripped of its lively tumble of goods. For months, every time I went by, the dark, vacant place sounded a depressing toll of “;no mo'”; in a damaged economy.

Well, had I gotten off my okole, I could have saved myself a lot of lamentation. Had I strayed from routine paths, I would have seen that just around the corner, mauka of the intersection, there on Isenberg, was a Hawaiian flag and a cluster of handmade ipu, chanting “;we're still here!”;

Though it has no storefront, the Hula Supply Center is carrying on, despite having to move to even smaller quarters in the downturn.

The business is just what its name says it is, its origin preceding the marketing industry that now hatches monikers seemingly contrived either to appeal to superficial aspirations or to even obscure its products.

As straightforward as the name is, however, there are other commodities the Hula Supply Center delivers: Hawaiian culture, its artists and its crafts. Mike teaches hula, mostly to children, and holds workshops where tourists make ipu and uli uli, produce rhythmic sounds from them and, more importantly, learn to appreciate the cadence of the people the instruments come from.

Talking with Syl, you can hear through her voice the frustration that undoubtedly many other business people have as they wrestle to keep their heads above water. As unique as it is, the store constantly battles the influx of cheap, inauthentic stuff sold at swap meets and knock-off kiosks.

She and Mike have tried for years to convince state leaders to pass laws to protect locally made products and limit what Syl calls “;riff-raff retailing,”; but “;Made in Hawaii”; doesn't have the financial heft of other enterprises.

Businesses like theirs aren't looking for handouts or subsidies, no revenue-busting tax credits equal to 200 percent of investment like the ones high-tech lobbyists have been bellyaching about seeing reduced.

They just want a fair chance at succeeding and a recognition of the value intrinsic in the islands' distinct heritage, its individuality in a mass of sameness.


Cynthia Oi can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).





        » The owners of Hula Supply Center are Syl and Mike Kop. An “;Under the Sun”; column Sunday on Page 45 misidentified them as Sly and Mike Op.