The beat goes on

Luke Yamashiro founded Hungry Ear and nursed it through the long transition from vinyl records to Internet downloads.

A family looks at carrying on
without the heart and soul
of an iconic Kailua record store

Hungry Ear Records in Kailua sells music on compact discs and movies on DVD, but after 24 1/2 years it's still comfortable being called a record store.

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The shop, originally known as the Vinyl Donut and for a brief time as Bullseye Music, has seen its share of changes and is heading for more.

Founder Luke Yamashiro is dying, after a lengthy battle with a cascading series of illnesses. His wife of six years, Michelle, her daughter Jaime Maielua and Michelle's father, Donald Ortwein, will close the shop for a few days when the inevitable occurs -- but will keep the store going.

Luke had been a manager at Vinyl Donut and its successor in the 1970s and he and two partners bought the ownership interest and opened as Hungry Ear in July 1980. Luke's passion for music and expertise in music recorded on vinyl also extended to playing music.

He could play drums, but playing electric guitar was what he preferred to do when jamming with friends.

The two partners eventually sold their interests to Yamashiro, an audiophile beloved by long-time customers and former co-workers. "His love of people has always showed. ... People would come in just to talk to him," Michelle said.

Luke hasn't been able to work in the store since earlier this year. "He's as comfortable as he can be at home," she said. "He can never be back in the store and he misses that, it was his life's blood."

Michelle Maielua-Yamashiro will continue to run the Hungry Ear business in Kailua with the help of her father, Donald Ortwein, and daughter Jaime Maielua.

Recently a former employee stopped in to talk story; another, who now lives on the mainland, stopped in during a Hawaii visit; and former co-founder Dennis Chun "still comes into the shop to help out," she said.

On Thursday, a Japanese visitor, a repeat Hungry Ear shopper since the year it opened, told Michelle that Luke "had informed him so much on music. I was very touched," she said.

She didn't have the collectible albums the man inquired about, "but I will always keep my eye out for them," she said. He told her he would be back next year.

The store has survived the music industry's many changes, from vinyl records to 8-track and cassette tapes to compact discs -- and more recently Internet downloads -- by "treating the customers right, doing what you can for them, being honest with them and just being as helpful as possible," said Michelle.

The operational style has built a loyal following who prefer to shop close to home. "It's amazing how many people don't want to go to Honolulu," she said.

Others "like the cozyness, sometimes even the quaintness, if you will, of your local mom-and-pop shop."

Small-town mentality and charm are not always enough to keep a business running, especially when growing numbers of people avoid music retailers altogether, in favor of downloading music online.

"We thought we were going to close three years ago," Michelle said.

The store closed Hungry Ear locations in Wahiawa and on Makaloa Street -- behind 800-pound gorilla-competitor Tower Records. "But the first store, which is the Kailua store, is the surviving one," Michelle said.

John Iervolino, president of Quiet Storm Distribution, has seen many record retailers come and go.

Hungry Ear "is the quintessential mom-and-pop shop," Iervolino said. "I really respect and love Luke and Michelle. They've endured and paid their bills when all the others copped out behind bankruptcy and started up somewhere else under a different brand."

The Yamashiros gave some thought, during a difficult time, to reopening the Kailua store as a collectible gift shop, but the economy picked back up and the store's focus was expanded to buying and selling used music, videos and DVDs "and any other gift items that may pertain to music ... anything to keep us flowing," Michelle said.

The percentage of new vs. used music sales fluctuates daily. Sales can be two-thirds new music and one-third used music one day and vice versa the next, she said. The store buys used music from people who bring in CDs and can order new music not in stock.

Partly because the shop takes in used music it has a huge selection in its small, venerable space on Kuulei Road.

Michelle teases her father, who will be 75 in June, that "you can teach an old dog new tricks," citing as proof all he's learned about musical artists.

"He could direct somebody to the latest Jack Johnson," she said.

The small, funky store in decidedly suburban Kailua has seen its share of celebrity shoppers in Michelle's time.

Staff members are instructed to play it low-key when famous folk file through the racks, but Michelle couldn't help herself one day when a famous, N.Y. Mets jersey-wearing shopper came in the shop.

"Nice shirt, Sid," she said to former pro ballplayer and ex-Lanikai resident Sid Fernandez. He explained that he was going to his son's game that day.

Michelle has known her husband since she was in high school. Luke was her big-brother's friend.

"I felt inferior (to Luke)" she said. "I just kept my nose in a book."

They found themselves back in each other's lives 10 years ago and were married four years later.

"It's been nice, but short ... worth waiting a lifetime for."

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