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Kona Heritage Stores Oral History Project

Wooden buildings with signs and automobiles.
Morihara Store, Kona, Hawai‘i. (Photo courtesy Morihara family.)

The Kona Heritage Stores Oral History Project documents the history of general stores in Kona Mauka. The stores dotted Māmalahoa Highway in coffee country, in small towns from Keōpū, North Kona to Keālia, South Kona. Seventeen surviving stores earned heritage status because they housed businesses continuously for over fifty years. Their longevity is indicative of family cohesiveness and perseverance, as well as coffee’s survival as a local industry. As go-betweens in the coffee trade and as providers of goods to communities who relied heavily on the success of the coffee industry, stores played an important role in Kona.

These establishments were also popular gathering places. The development and maintenance of these stores on Hawai‘i Island tell a story of change and continuity in Kona Mauka. In the late nineteenth century, Chinese immigrants and Native Hawaiians comprised the majority of merchants in the area. In the early twentieth century, Japanese immigrants who left sugar plantations for coffee farms took over much of the storekeeping. The proliferation of these stores paralleled the growth of small towns along Māmalahoa Highway.

“My dad [once] worked for Mr. [Isamu] Ota, who had that I. Ota Store [in Lanihau], which isn’t very far from my dad’s store [Onizuka Store]. . . . So he kind of encouraged my dad to go into the store business. At that time, my dad was going to get married to my mom, so that’s when he built the store and started a little grocery store—general merchandise store.” —Shirley Onizuka Matsuoka

Some general stores added barbering and taxi services, gasoline pumps, and billiard tables. Many sold specialty items, such as homemade poi [cooked and pounded taro], dried fish, or lau hala [pandanus leaf] crafts. With coffee as the region’s main commodity, several Kona storekeepers allowed customers to pay their bills with cherry coffee. The storekeepers, in turn, sold the coffee to local millers or milled the coffee themselves as a second business.

“[Ashihara Market was] more famous for fish market, yeah. Fish market more than liquor. When we had the market, that was the more important one that we had. The general merchandise was just a tag-a-long. Just like a neighborhood store, or a convenience store.” —Tsukao Ashihara

“My mom took care of the store when we were younger, and my dad did the coffee. He did the poi factory. He did the deliveries. For a little man he really worked hard. And we all sort of had to chip in. We were all expected to work in the store.” —Gloria Higashi Okamura

Project interviewers Warren Nishimoto of COH and Nancy Pi‘ianaia and Maile Melrose of Kona Historical Society conducted interviews at the interviewees’ homes. Because interviewees were asked to comment on experiences and incidents oftentimes specific to their own lives, no set questionnaire was used. Instead, a life history approach was followed, creating biographical case studies centered mainly on the backgrounds of the interviewees and the events that shaped their lives. Interviewees were asked to describe and comment on experiences such as family and home life, community life, childhood activities, cultural upbringing, schooling, and coffee farming. Detailed questions on the origins, daily operations, and changes in the interviewees’ family businesses, were posed.

“Prior to him [Kakuro Komo] opening the store, the store was run by my great-uncle Mutsunobu. Then he went back to Japan. So my dad took over the store. . . . [K. Komo Store] was a general merchandise store so he had all the various necessity things, plus he used to sell gasoline, and hardware, and clothing.” —Kenneth Komo

Six women and seven men were interviewed for this project. With the exception of a few years spent in school, military service, or work, all thirteen are lifelong Kona residents.

“I think on my father’s side, the grandparents, after they finished their contract with the plantation, then they were free, so they came to Kona. But I think—on my mother’s side—I think they took off before their contract was over. My mother was the eldest—she had five brothers. They had to walk all the way [to Kona from Hilo]. She said, “Oh, my brother would cry many times, and I had to opa [carry] him and all that, you know.” (Laughs)” —Norman Okumura

The Kona Heritage Stores Oral History Project was undertaken with funding and research support from the Kona Historical Society.

 

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