It didn’t take long during his first visit to Hawaii in 2002 for Ed Justus to know he had found his place. “When I got here, it felt more like home than any other place I’d ever been,” he said. The Virginia native was so desperate to stay on the island of Kauai that he quit his job at an entertainment company, rented a house, and began selling used and antiquarian books on eBay.
Two years later, after being offered a month’s free rent in a building in the town of Hanapepe to launch a bricks-and-mortar business, Justus transferred 8,000 books from his home to the location and launched Talk Story Bookstore. He sold only used books for the first eight years, but in 2012 he began stocking new books as well.
Talk Story’s inventory of 25,000 titles is now 30% new and 70% used books. Pre-pandemic, the split between new and used was closer to 50–50. “I’ve modeled Talk Story on Powell’s in Portland, Ore.,” Justus said, referring to its inventory mix as well as its efforts to offer books that interest tourists and residents alike. “I paid attention to what they did.”
Talk Story also stocks Hawaiian LPs, sheet music, vintage magazines and video games, and comic books. “Covid screwed things up,” Justus said, referring to distribution disruptions that hit Hawaii hard this past year. “I am much more careful about what I order now: I make sure it’s going to sell.”
As for how he came up with the bookstore’s name, “talk story,” Justus explained, is a pidgin Hawaiian phrase meaning “to chat” or “to shoot the breeze.” He said he wanted Talk Story “to be a place where people could share laughs and stories with old pals and new friends.”
Talk Story, on Kauai’s southern coast, is the westernmost bookstore in the U.S. For almost a decade it was the only bookstore on the island, until the Womb Bookstore opened in October in Kapaa, on the island’s eastern side. There are fewer than a dozen indies total in the nation’s 50th state; most are concentrated in Honolulu, where there’s also a Barnes & Noble location.
Though Talk Story’s only competition until 2011 was a Borders outlet on the island, Justus recalled how difficult launching the business was. “The first month, we made enough to either pay for the continuation of the store or pay for the house I was living in,” he said. Driving home one day while trying to decide what to do, inspiration struck. “I looked up and a double rainbow appeared in the sky—and I knew what to do. I decided to let go of the place I was renting, sleep in my van, and save the bookstore.”
Due to Kauai’s popularity as a tourist destination, averaging a million visitors each year pre-Covid, Talk Story eventually flourished and became a retail anchor in a former sugar town of 3,000 residents that has reinvented itself as an arts mecca. With much of store traffic composed of out-of-state visitors, books about Kauai and Hawaii in general are perennial bestsellers, followed by thrillers. A 2009 nonfiction work, however, Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean: How a Generation of Swashbuckling Jews Carved Out an Empire in Their Quest for Treasure, Religious Freedom and Revenge by Edward Kritzler, an Anchor paperback original, remains a top seller for the store. “I don’t know why it keeps selling so well, but it does,” Justus noted with a laugh.
Of course, due to its location, Talk Story’s business has been hit harder by the pandemic than most mainland stores. Talk Story sales from March through January dropped 80% compared to the same period the year before. It was able to offset the loss of sales from tourists to some degree with the help of Kauai residents, who rallied to save the island’s cash-strapped small businesses and doubled their purchases at the store.
Unlike many bookstores on the mainland, Talk Story did not see a bump in online sales, which currently still account for only about 2% of its revenue. “At this point, we’re just riding the wave,” Justus said, noting that with two PPP loans, he is able to cover store expenses and pay the rent, which he described as “reasonable” in comparison to the “insanely high” commercial rents that are commonplace on the island.
Despite this past year’s challenges, Justus is confident that Talk Story will prevail. “People like to shop,” he said, noting that the store stocks books for “everyone, not just tourists.” Customers know that if they walk into Talk Story, “they will find that treasure they didn’t even know they were looking for.”