Saturday, January 27, 2001
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Posted on: Saturday, January 27, 2001

Island's skyline less than inspiring

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer

They say you can tell a lot about a civilization by studying its most prominent buildings.

Egypt had its pyramids. Rome had the Coliseum. The Middle Ages were dominated by cathedrals. During the Industrial Revolution, it was big banks. In the last 50 years, high-rise insurance towers defined our downtowns.

And in Hawaii today, we have auto parts stores.

Everywhere you go these days, there’s another auto parts store opening up. It seems like they’re taking over. They’re showing up in brand new places, and in some old favorites, too.

For years in Hawaii, there was just NAPA. You needed an oil filter, you went to NAPA. Brake pads, spark plugs, car wax? NAPA.

If your problems were more serious than that, you went and got gouged by a dealer, where they still think nothing of charging $120 for a replacement hubcap or $260 for a side-view mirror.

Most auto parts stores in Hawaii used to be neighborhood affairs, tucked away in suburban side streets or mini-malls. Increasingly, the big chain boys are coming in. They’re changing the way we buy car parts, the same way Costco changed the way we bought groceries and Home Depot changed the way we bought tools and paint.

This really shouldn’t be so surprising. Auto parts are a $600 billion industry in America today. The five largest chains in America all advertise nationally. The top 10 auto chains own roughly half of all auto parts stores in America. Just as in so many other areas, Hawaii’s auto parts business looks less and less local and more and more Mainland.

Which is why it’s doubly shocking to see auto parts chain outlets showing up in some pretty hallowed ground. When Andy’s Drive-In closed in Kailua a few years back, it was an auto parts store that moved in. That’s a big auto parts store on the grounds where the Gem’s department store used to be in Kalihi. And now there’s a new auto parts store going in, of all places, the old Cinerama Theater on Beretania Street.

And here’s a scary thought: The three biggest auto parts chains in America — AutoZone, Advance Auto and General Parts — haven’t even discovered Hawaii yet.

Personally, I can barely tell a radiator from a radio, and I wouldn’t know how to repair or replace either one in my car. I’ve been inside a car parts store only about a dozen times in my life, and then it’s usually been with a note from my mechanic telling me exactly what to get.

But I know a trend when I see it. And I know auto parts stores are the pyramids and cathedrals of modern life. I’ll let you decide what that says about our civilization.

Mike Leidemann’s columns appear Thursdays and Saturdays in The Advertiser. He can be reached by phone (525-5460) or e-mail (

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