Ceiling lined with pieces of the past
By Mike Leidemann
Lish Jens can read history on her ceiling. Soon, the future will be written on her walls, too.
For nearly 30 years, Jens has been collecting business cards and putting them on the ceiling of her store, Kealakekua's Grass Shack.
Tens of thousands of the 1-by-3-inch cards fill every last inch of the ceiling in the Big Island store, which offers an eclectic mix of fine local handicrafts and tacky tourist trash. From a distance, the curled and yellowed cards really do look like the underside of a thatched roof hut.
"It's just something we started doing, and it kept going and going," Jens said. "Customers gave us their cards and this seemed a better idea than throwing them in a box where they'd never be seen."
Jens and her husband, Jonathan, took over the former general store in the early 1970s and changed it into a gift gallery as more and more tourists found their way into upcountry Kona. Now many of their customers are return visitors who want to ask to see a business card they left behind years ago.
Because nearly all the cards are dated and ordered chronologically, Jens can almost always find one.
Over there, near the entrance, that's the 1970s. On the other side, that's the 1990s. In between and on the lanai facing the highway, that's the 1980s, a little more faded from the sun than all the rest.
"We've got people coming back after 10 or 20 years, wanting to see a card they left behind," Jens said. "Or their children will stop by asking about a card their parents told them about years ago. It's amazing how important they are to a person." One wife even brought back her husband's business card after he died.
Many people stop at the store, thinking it's the site of the original "Little Grass Shack," the catchy tune written by Johnny Noble, Tommy Harrison and Bill Cogswell.
The truth is there never was any grass shack; the lyrics were penned by Cogswell as a parody to "Back in Hackensack, New Jersey." Jens sells the sheet music to the song, anyway.
"I just tell them that this is as original a grass shack as they're going to find," she said.
She doesn't want to fool anyone. The store is full of local koa bowls, lauhala weavings, all kinds of fine local art. But there's also a shelf full of things made in the Philippines and China. Talk about truth in advertising: A sign warns tourists: "Sorry, these items are not made in Hawai'i. But at least the price is right."
Even though there's no room left on the ceiling, Jens can't refuse anyone who leaves a business card behind. Just this year, she's started stapling them to a wall behind the cash register. That's the future of Grass Shack history.
Mike Leidemann's columns appear Thursdays and Saturdays in The Advertiser. He can be reached by phone (525-5460) or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org