Denby Fawcett: Costco’s decision to stop selling books in Hawaii is a blow to local authors

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It might not seem like a big deal, but Costco Wholesale has stopped selling books at all seven stores in Hawaii.

Costco media buyer Alexandria Kanenwisher informed local distributors last month that Costco stores in Hawaii as well as Alaska would no longer sell books.

Kanenwisher, who works at Costco’s headquarters in Issaquah, Washington, did not respond to calls or emails asking for an explanation as to why Costco halted book sales — and why only in Hawaii and Alaska and not in the hundreds of other Costco stores on the mainland.

Warehouse managers I spoke to at two different Costco stores here said book sales in Hawaii stores have been steadily declining and the company has decided to sell other faster moving products in the retail space once devoted to books. The executives did not want their names used because they were not authorized to speak on behalf of the company.

When I went to Hawaii Kai Costco on Friday to buy Greek yogurt and coffee, I saw boxes of holiday chocolates, rows of gift cards and artificial Christmas trees in the area where the books were once displayed. on a long table.

The news is a blow to Hawaiian book distributors, authors and publishers. Also, to readers here like me and others who for over 30 years have been taking advantage of Costco’s deeply discounted book prices.

Disappearance of bookstores

The weapons to distribute physical books to the reading public in Hawaii are slowly disappearing, cut one by one, with Costco losing the latest amputation.

Barnes and Noble is the only remaining major bookstore in the islands with stores in Ala Moana Center and Lahaina, Maui. Borders, which has six major bookstores in Hawaii, closed in 2011. Waldenbooks, a now-defunct subsidiary of Borders, also disappeared. There were once 14 stores statewide, one in almost every mall.

“Despite the independent bookstores, I wonder if some parts of Hawaii aren’t becoming book wastelands. Yes, there’s Amazon, but that’s not the same as being able to browse and search a table of books or shelves of books. Local, specific Hawaiian titles get lost on Amazon — they’re only found if they’re actively searched for,” says Jane Gillespie, production manager at Mutual Publishing.

Mutual Publishing, based in Kaimuki, has been publishing books about Hawaii for nearly 50 years.

For Mutual and other Hawaiian publishers, Costco provided free exposure and publicity to local authors.

“When Costco decided to sell a Hawaiian author’s book, the author thought he had really done it. Now authors will be denied that opportunity,” Mutual owner Bennett Hymer said.

Shoppers rushed to pick up chef Sam Chow’s cookbooks, especially when he made signings at Costco like this in 1988. Mutual editions/1998

Large warehouse stores like Costco attracted customers who ordinarily would never set foot in a traditional bookstore.

“When people are rushing to buy their $5 rotisserie chicken and stacks of toilet paper, they may notice a book they’ve heard about and toss it in their shopping cart along with their laundry soap and yogurt cartons,” says Dawn Sakamoto Paiva.

Paiva is the director of sales and marketing for Watermark Publishing, a local company that has been specializing in Hawaiian books for 25 years. She says people who buy books at Costco “tend to be casual book shoppers,” readers who local publishers might not otherwise reach. “For these people, going to a bookstore is not part of their usual routine.”

Author Mark Panek, an English professor at the University of Hawaii Hilo, said a book signing he did at the Costco store in Kona gave his book a quick boost in sales. : “Hawaii: A Novel” and made others talk about it.

“I sold 20 books in 90 minutes at Kona’s book signing. We ran out. That’s a lot of books for a guy like me,” he said.

Bargain shopping

Costco folks doing their weekly shopping grabbed chef Sam Choy’s cookbooks, especially when the friendly Choy was in stores signing books, his editor says.

Costco was also a good way to reach tourists who came straight from the airport at the start of their vacation to buy wine and food for their timeshares and ended up buying locally written books to read on the beach.

“Costco is an essential stop for food and supplies and with our local books, we’ve been able to expose many visitors to Hawaii’s history, culture and food,” says Gillespie.

For years, the University of Hawaii Press made annual profits of $40,000 to $60,000 from Costco stores, according to former sales manager Royden Muranaka. The “Hawaiian Dictionary” published by UH by Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel H. Elbert was a big seller at Costco.

The Mutual Publishing owner says he’s surprised Hawaii and Alaska were chosen to end book sales.

“Costco told our office that the elimination of the books in its stores had to do with shipping costs to Hawaii and Alaska, but that makes no sense because the books published in Hawaii were delivered locally and not shipped. “, says Hymer. “Costco also said it was because of the cost of returning books that hadn’t been sold. But that still doesn’t make sense because there was no shipping cost to return the books to us. .

Costco opened its first member warehouse store in Hawaii at the Bougainville Center in Salt Lake in 1988 before moving that operation to Iwilei and expanding with three more stores in Oahu as well as one store each in Maui, Kauai, and Hawaii. island of Hawaii.

The company’s store in Iwilei is said to be the busiest in the world, recording twice the annual sales of its 825 other locations worldwide.

Publisher Buddy Bess, owner of Bess Press in Kaimuki, said he was surprised but not shocked by Costco’s decision. He says the book sections in the various stores, including Iwilei, were “slowly deteriorating”.

Bess says that at one time, Costco was a key player in determining how many books Bess Press printed.

“We knew Costco had the ability to reach a larger market and as a result we would be printing a larger selection of books and high print runs. Without this widespread distribution, it limits and narrows our decision-making process about what to print and how many copies to print,” he says.

A bright side

Owners of independent bookstores told me they weren’t saddened to hear that Costco was ending its book sales in Hawaii.

“You won’t see me crying ‘boo hoo’,” says Christine Reed. Reed and her husband David founded Basicly Books, an independent bookstore that has operated in Hilo for 37 years.

Reed says Costco was a powerful and unfair competitor. “Costco sold its books to buyers at the wholesale price we pay for the books. Basically, Books has to add shipping and other costs to the price of its books. »

Reed says independent bookstores are thriving on the Big Island with a total of six stores selling new and used books in Kona and Hilo. Oahu has four independent bookstores, and there’s one in Hanapepe Kauai.

My next column will focus on the resurgence of independent bookstores in Hawaii and whether indies are enough to ensure the survival of physical books and places where readers can browse their pages to discover new things.

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