Under the Sun


Community values give
local businesses an edge

The tiny rod that held the wrist band to my watch broke while I was on a plane from Honolulu to Hilo. It had been a tough week and I didn't have the energy to hunt for a replacement, so I tucked the watch into my purse and drove to the KTA supermarket on Puainako Street to stock up on provisions before heading to my house for the weekend.

Pushing the cart into the store, I saw a counter near the entrance jammed with electronic stuff. I didn't really expect the store to stock the rod, but I asked anyway. It was a nice surprise when the clerk, a soft-spoken man, pulled out a plastic tray and assured me he had one that would fit. He poked through the compartments, frowning when he couldn't find it.

"You going shop?" he asked. I nodded. "Leave the watch here. Pick 'em up when you pau," he said.

Urban girl that I am, I was unsure about surrendering the timepiece without a receipt, but it seemed that asking for one would be insulting. I gave it over.

Trundling through the market, I soon forgot about the watch because shopping at KTA is one of my favorite things to do in Hilo. The variety of foods surpasses most supermarkets in Honolulu and a lot of the products -- from milk and honey to mochi and beef -- are grown, raised or made on the Big Island.

Hilo has other good supermarkets, but I choose to spend my money at KTA because the owners realize that selling local products ripples far throughout the island's economy. But it's not all about dollars; there's a sensibility, too.

Saturdays at KTA are more community gatherings than shopping experience. Aunties lean on carts, talking story and marveling over how fast their friends' children have grown while uncles share fishing tales. Customers exchange gossip with each other and with the checkout clerks whose smiles and courteous service flow genuinely, rather than as corporate directives.

I have this odd notion that where I shop should reflect my views on life. It's not based so much on local vs. not or big vs. small, but more about who I want to pass my money to and what I get in return. I figure W&M needs my business more than Mickey D's; the supersized franchise won't miss me. Besides, I get a real barbecued burger at W&M.

In Moiliili, Ebisu-ya and Fukuya both have long family histories behind their delicatessens, and I like seeing the new generations picking up where their elders left off. Kokua Market gets my business because it is a co-op and I respect the idea of people working together so they can buy and sell organic foods at reasonable prices. And they always have arugula to spice up my sandwiches.

Powder Edge carries environmentally sensitive clothing, and the clerks are knowledgeable about recreational products. I don't like being peddled a bill of goods, so I frequent Ace Hardware in Kaimuki where the employees give good advice, even if it means selling me a cheaper nozzle for my faucet.

Mona at Rainbow Country store shares crispy pears and stories of life in Korea. JJ, a native of Laos, proudly displays a "Buy Hawaii" sign in the window of JJ French Pastry. He is grateful to be in America, where he can excel at making Danish and pyramids of chocolate cake.

Back in Hilo, the citrus man at the farmers' market takes pride in growing good fruit, so I buy his tart Meyer lemons. The market itself is a bargain dream -- six papayas for $1 and 24 anthurium blossoms for $2. The sellers there represent the smallest of small business and I'm glad to support them. They work hard for my money.

Oh, about my watch. When I returned to the counter, the clerk handed it to me, band attached, rod in place, crystal polished clean. "I had to go to the warehouse to find the pin," he said. "How much?" I asked. He shook his head. But you went through all that trouble, I protested. "No charge," he said.

Cynthia Oi has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin for 25 years.
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