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Vol.18, no.2
April/May 2015

 

The Little Five 
Story By: Shannon Wianecki
Photos By: Sue Hudelson
 

In the early days of the twentieth century, a quintet of Hawai‘i’s most powerful business interests—known as the Big Five—dominated the political and commercial landscape of the Islands. In their shadow, small family-run businesses sprang up, lending color to local communities. Independent entrepreneurs supplied their neighbors with life’s necessities—fuel, fishing gear and funnel cakes—and things less tangible: a sense of place, continuity and character. They still do.

This is the tale of five ma-and-pa businesses in Hawai‘i that are small but mighty. They survived the Great Depression, multiple wars, tsunamis, hurricanes, fires and—perhaps most challenging of all—the transition from one generation to the next. Still solvent, still in the family, each venture emerged out of the dream of running your own business—and survived thanks to a great deal of hard work. Over the past hundred years, these humble operations evolved into beloved Island institutions, hubs around which their communities revolve.

A stroll through Hasegawa General Store reveals what’s important to the residents of Hana, the isolated village in the farthest corner of East Maui. The island’s largest selection of machetes hangs above the office window: everything from grass whackers to coconut splitters. The display is a shrine to the single most useful tool in this rainforested terrain, where Hasegawa’s has operated for the past 110 years. Beyond machetes, the store is filled with hammers and nails, fresh avocados and lettuce, Hula brand chow fun noodles, movies to rent and items to make one blush: pregnancy tests and lice shampoo. Tourists seeking sustenance for the long drive back to their hotels can also stock up on souvenir tees and bumper stickers.

When brothers Soichi and Saburo Hasegawa opened the store in 1905, Hana’s sugar plantations supported a population of three thousand, almost triple the number of residents living here today. People and goods arrived by interisland steamship. The serpentine Hana Highway wasn’t built until 1926—and then it was a mere gravel track that took three and a half nerve-rattling hours to drive.

Soichi’s son Toshimasa Hasegawa inherited the store in 1932, followed by his son Harry in 1961. Harry, who is now a youthful 80 years old, remembers watching the freight ship pull into the pier loaded with goods for his parents’ shop. In those days the Big Five did all of the merchandising—and monopolized most of the customers. “Being a non-plantation store, we just took the leftovers,” says Harry. To entice shoppers to their side of the street, the Hasegawas offered homemade ice cream and another rarity: electricity. The plantations that provided power for the community shut down at night; that’s when the Hasegawas’ diesel generator snapped on, drawing people into the store after sundown.

With the onset of WWII, the Hasegawas welcomed Hana’s first tourists: American GIs. Soldiers had money to spend and no allegiance to the sugar company stores. Then, in 1946, Hana’s last sugar mill closed.

Many residents moved. But the Hasegawas stayed put. Toshimasa was a hobbyist photographer; his black-and-white photos show the store crammed with inventory from floor to ceiling: bolts of fabric, engine belts, teakettles and toys. Most purchases were made on credit; the Hasegawas carried customers until payday each month. When Harry reached college age, Toshimasa told him, “You’re going away to school but you have to come back.” Harry did, and later sent his own eldest son, Neil, off with the same instruction. By that time Hasegawa General Store was famous; composer Paul Weston immortalized the mercantile’s jampacked shelves and warm aloha in song. 

Continuing the family business was a given for Neil Hasegawa. He loved living in Hana, where he could fish and pick ‘opihi (limpets) in the same coves as his great-grandfather had, and he recognized every other car. But his faith in small-town values was tested shortly after he returned from college. Before dawn on August 14, 1990, the Hasegawas woke to bad news: Their store was ablaze. “From the stop sign you could see the halo glow of the fire,” remembers Neil. Hana didn’t have a fire station then, just one firefighter with a small pump truck. The store and the old family home were reduced to ashes. Investigators determined it was arson.

“That was a shock,” says Neil. “I took it personally.” He looked at people differently, wondering who was responsible. “It was a dark time,” he says. “Finally, I had to let it go.” The family relocated what little they were able to salvage to the vacant Hana Theater across the street. “We didn’t lay anyone off through that whole ordeal,” says Neil. “We all stayed together. That was healing in a way.” The store’s dozen employees helped renovate the theater. By February they were back in business. 

The Hasegawas not only reopened, they expanded their services, and the store now serves as many as five hundred customers a day. Its bulletin board is a conduit for local communication. Neil installed the town’s first ATM. He negotiated with UPS to accept deliveries for customers who live beyond drivers’ routes and installed a HI-5 redemption center so residents no longer have to haul recyclables out of town. Neil and Harry also have plans to rebuild at the original site. The new store will cater to community desires: a deli with locally caught fish, a bigger beer selection and possibly an even more lavish shrine to the machete.


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