Del was about 5’ 8” and wore a black shirt with a black baseball cap. He approached me in Nā Mea, a small store in Honolulu’s Ward Village that sells Hawaiian and Polynesian art, calendars, clothing, food, jewelry, etc., as I was bent sideways browsing their wall of books. He asked me if I was looking for anything specific. “Just browsing,” I said. My mask hid my smile but I hoped that my eyes creased so he would know that I was friendly. His words were lined with enthusiasm and joy, so much so that I was almost suspicious of his motives.
“Okay, what do you like to read?” he probed me. I was intimidated, since I don’t think there’s one right answer to a question like that. And what if I say something he doesn’t like?
I stammered, “Just about anything. I thought this book looked interesting.” I pointed to a small book on their new releases table. “Do you know anything about it?” It was titled The Properties of Perpetual Light and had an attractive cover.
We went on with this small talk about books for a couple minutes. He suggested a title on another shelf, Shoals of Time by Gavan Daws. This was far more academic than what I was hoping for. It was also out of my book budget.
“I’m here on vacation so space in my bag is limited,” I mourned.
“Oh, where are you from?” he asked.
At this, I told him of California, my trip to Hawaii, my job, and my travels up til then. He was receptive, and I could tell he was listening carefully by the way he looked at me. Del must have found something special in our short conversation, because he suggested that we stay in touch.
“I should get your phone number. And you can have mine,” he offered.
“Yes, definitely,” I warmly replied without any definite feeling about where this would go. Then came a surprise.
“I need to finish some work in the back, but do you have time right now? Are you doing anything or have plans?” he asked. Being on vacation, I didn’t have any plans for that afternoon and exploring, and I told him so.
“Have you had lunch? Would you like to get lunch together?”
My stomach was growling and I was already impatient with my inability to choose a book. I agreed quickly to his proposal. I thought this would be a good opportunity to meet a Hawaii native. He could show me show where the locals eat. Del rushed off to the back and came out only a minute later, surprising me again, this time with a business card in his hand. On it he had scribbled his name and phone number. He told me, “Ok, wait here. 15 minutes.”
He scurried away, and I continued to peruse the bookshelves. I bought two books and loitered in the store, admiring the carved bone tools, the wooden necklaces, and the hand twisted earrings. Soon enough, Del popped up right beside me.
“Where do you wanna go?” he asked.
“Anywhere,” I said, smiling. “You know the area best.”
“Ok, in here,” and we walked out into the mall which his store was tucked away in.
He led the way through the crowded mall, barely giving me enough time to see what it had to offer. He asked me once or twice more what I wanted to eat. I earnestly told him I didn’t mind, I was hungry and curious where he might take me and what we might discover. He led us through and out, taking us down the street and around the corner. We found a restaurant with a clean and neat patio and a sign that read “Kitchen and Meatery.” After we took a seat, I asked, “How long have you been working at the store?”
“4 years,” he said, nodding slowly.
“And before that?”
“At the other store, in downtown.” Apparently Nā Mea had two locations, the original and then the one I visited. He told me how the book selection at the other was impressive, and how I’d like that one more. When I asked him how long he had worked at that store, he thought for a second and said, “About 29 years.”
I wasn’t expecting this loyalty and inertness. I asked him how much the island had changed in the last 30 years. “A lot,” he said, nodding even slower this time. I could tell that this was something he could feel within, but hadn’t spoken about in a long time. As he talked about the changes on O’ahu, there was a feeling of by-gone times and pernicious tourism, but also a strong appreciation and pride for the growth of one’s homeland. Del told me he grew up on the island of Hawai’i, that he never learned to surf, and that now he lived north near the university where he loved to attend the football games. He told me he had once visited San Diego, some 10 years ago, to support the university’s football team in their game against San Diego State. He told me of the pride and energy he felt when his team scored and the Hawaii section of the stands roared with excitement. He told me about the decline of the sugar cane plantations, like the Waialua mill and its many Japanese and Filipino laborers, and the decline of the Dole pineapple business, and the many Hawaiians in that family.
He was quick to agree with many things I had to say, and when he didn’t agree he scrunched his face and shook his head. His accent was dense and difficult to navigate, like the tall brush you wade through in the forests on the north shore. I had to lean in with an ear out to pick up every syllable, most of which he didn’t seem to care for and would just disappear when he spoke.
I ate pork belly eggs benedict; he had a grandule rice and eggs plate. When I asked if pork belly was popular (I had heard it was), he said, “Oh, yes. I have many friends who eat it. I don’t like it.” His plate was colorful from all the cumin, curry, and chili powder that had made their way onto it. I noticed that when he ate, he flipped his fork upside-down, held it still, and pushed rice with his knife onto the back of the fork. This was how he brought food to his mouth.
We talked about my work, his work, his interests, me moving to Berkeley, and his family. When I asked him if he was married, he said “No… but I have four kids.” It must have been easy to notice that I lacked anything to say, so he continued, “Four cats!” I still couldn’t tell if he was joking. He wasn’t; I learned that to him, those cats are his kids. I loved that when I asked him what he did on the weekends, he said with a gentle smile, “I get a blanket, go to a beach where only the locals go, bring a book, and just read and enjoy the afternoon under a tree.” This was my kind of guy.
Del insisted on buying our lunch. I pushed back but his hospitality and generosity were stubborn. We agreed that I would leave the tip. When we walked out, he burst into a race walk! I told him him I’d hoped that I hadn’t made him late back to work. He quickly declined that idea and politely said that he was glad we went out. We rushed back through the hot and humid streets with the sun hitting us hard. At his turn, he rushed to say it was nice to meet me. We fist-bumped, as he was used to doing during COVID. Just as quickly had our day began together did it end. I stood alone on the sidewalk not sure where to go next.
Amazon began in 1994 as a bookstore: a story which is now Silicon Valley folk-lore. Humble beginnings; turbulent trajectories; and ultimately, power in ways never before conceived.
Amazon is no longer a bookstore. Today, its profit largely comes from the healthy margins of Amazon Web Services.
So if Amazon is no longer a bookstore, what is it? What is it not? These are the same questions for Google, Microsoft, etc. (and it’s one way they skirt around antitrust laws). Does Amazon add value to society? If so, what kind of value? Is it value that matters for individuals and humankind? Value like memories, friendship, or kindness? In most ways, I think it doesn’t. Never has Amazon provided me or any other consumer I know with life-long memories or friendship or one of the many other things which Del showed me in our hour together. I also think that this is what makes Del and other small businesses the heart of society, pumping life and blood through our people. Amazon, and generally mega-tech companies, are capillaries: fringe elements of our communal body and spirit, substantiative but irrelevant without the heart. In the worst cases, these companies are behemoth advertising leeches, external to “us” and feeding on our blood and offering no nutrients in return.
That is to say, Del provides in ways that Amazon cannot, and will not. It is not their goal or their function to provide value like Del does. Yet, there remains a place in this universe for both to vie for customers. Amazon is certainly allowed some share of the market. But if Del and Nā Mea go out of business, so does at least 30 years of Hawaiian culture and history bundled into a vibrant hole-in-the-wall shop. And so does any opportunity for interaction as a consumer to be leagues more than a market transaction.
There are so many beautiful things about small local businesses that to buy from Amazon should only be a last resort.
When I began putting some of these thoughts on paper, my ideas largely revolved around what made Amazon bad. That list could stretch for long enough, including its poor labor practices; its negative effect on cities and communities; its negative impact on the environment; its insidious and gross tax evasion; its dangerous and reckless standards for delivery drivers; and less tangibly, its influence on the American psyche.
While these might be true, Amazon also positively contributes to society in dozens of ways. They create jobs and impressive economic opportunities, they create supply competition, lower consumers’ costs, and do in fact sometimes act philanthropically. But we must ask ourselves if the good outweighs the bad.
Unlike this fine ethical line which Amazon lumbers along, it is rare that a small business does not make up its negative impact with the benefits the community it’s in reaps. The number of ways which small businesses provide for society is innumerable, and they tend to not be so dubious.
Although I might be boycotting Amazon, I realize that this is not practical for everyone. What is practical for everyone though is thinking critically about where they choose to spend their income. I believe that supporting folks like Del and businesses like Nā Mea will grow humanity in ways that Amazon, and its quest for other-worldly growth, will never match.
Please visit Nā Mea online and support them if you can.