When beloved local landmark Mel’s Market in Waimānalo closed in 2012 after nearly sixty years in business, members of the tight-knit community worried about what would replace it. “Mel’s was an icon, a meeting ground where people came together,” recalls Martha Ross, a lifelong resident of the small town in Windward O‘ahu. “There were a lot of rumors that it would become a fast-food franchise or a parking lot.” Given the McDonald’s just next door, that wasn’t a baseless concern.
The community, though, didn’t let that happen. Some neighbors joined forces to purchase the property, and in December 2013 the Waimānalo Market Co-op was born. Today Ross is the general manager, directing deliveries of local produce, helping artists sell their work and training member-volunteers to keep it running.
While ’Nalo residents would visit Mel’s for the essentials—toilet paper, rice, Spam —the Waimānalo Market Co-op is ﬁlled with original art, books, music and, of course, fresh produce (much of it from nearby farms), ﬁsh caught in the bay and even Hawaiian herbal medicines. Shelves are lined with homemade liliko‘i jam, guava jelly and taro chips. The message board advertises classes, lomilomi and healing from nearby providers. The mobile commercial kitchen outside the shop is part of a pilot project to help local taro growers and other farmers process their harvests.
About 165 member-owners pay annual dues ($115 for individuals, $230 for families) and commit to working up to forty-eight hours a year at the store. Those who can’t work may join for a higher fee, but the majority enjoy the sense of community participation they feel by working at the store. You don’t, of course, need to join to shop. Leina‘ala Bright, a practitioner of lā‘au lapa‘au (Hawaiian herbal medicine), is one of the founding members; she made the dropper bottles ﬁlled with aquaponically grown herbal medicines like ‘ōlena (turmeric) and comfrey available at the co-op. “Usually herbal remedies would be distributed directly to clients, not sold in a store,” says Bright, “but I feel comfortable putting them on the shelves, because it’s personal. It’s like an extension of family.”
Even with the new management, the old Mel’s Market won’t be forgotten; they left the original Mel’s sign up.
Story by Larry Lieberman. Photos by Monte Costa