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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, June 8, 2001

Shopping like a pro

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer

Buddha statuettes and bells are on display at Siam Imports in the university area, one of a number of boutique-like stores around town offering Asian decor.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

• • •


East of Java, 2572 Woodlawn Drive, Manoa Marketplace. 988-5282

Siam Imports, 2567 S. King St. and 2570 S. Beretania St. 951-7426, 951-7484

Baik Designs, 560 N. Nimitz Highway, Suite 108B. 524-2290

Pacific Orient Traders, 560 N. Nimitz Highway. 531-3774

Watanabe Floral Inc. Wholesale, 1607 Hart St. 848-1026

Mei Sum Chinese Dim Sum Restaurant, 65 N. Pauahi St. 531-3258

Cedar Street Galleries, 817 Cedar St. 589-1580

La Gelateria Italian Style Frozen Desserts, 819 Cedar St. 591-1133

Zeku, 1888 Kalakaua Ave., C110. 979-4999

Garakuta-do, 833 Kalakaua Ave., Suite 100. 955-2099

• • •

Tricks of the shopping trade

Always ask about a discount. Many merchants will negotiate.

The best stuff isn't always on display. Check to see if there is a warehouse, closet or hidden storeroom somewhere.

Buy it now. You can always return it later.

Shop existentially. It's the process, not the result, that counts.

Look for expert help. There's a wide range of quality out there.

Keep up your strength. Eat regularly.

Shopping for home furnishings in Honolulu is a bit like going fishing. A lot of times you're going to get skunked and come home empty-handed. Once in a while, though, you're going to land that trophy catch.

Either way, you've got to enjoy the experience as much as the result. And in both cases you've got to know the little tricks that lead to success.

As an architect, interior designer and home consultant, Nancy Peacock shops as part of her professional duties. Making regular rounds of home furnishing and accessory stores keeps her on top of design trends. She spends hours — whole days! — looking for just the right thing to put in someone else's home. She shops everywhere, from high-end furniture stores to little boutiques. From mainstream (KMart, Ross) to the fringe (Zeku, Garakuta-Do).

"I was raised in a family of shoppers," she said. "I was practically brought up on antique stores. It's the thrill of the hunt. You have to look at a bunch of junk to find that one piece that's really stunning."

Recently, she offered to let an Advertiser reporter accompany her on a shopping day, sharing her professional and personal tips along the way. The reporter, who normally twitches and shudders after 15 minutes of any shopping experience, agreed to try it.

Here's our report:

9:30 a.m. Makiki: We meet at Peacock's home and office. She wants to drive her BMW with the top down. A few minutes later, we pick up Juju, a neighbor and shopping companion with a fine eye for Asian furnishings. Later, will meet another neighbor and client, Kimberly, who plans to pay for a Chinese armoire that Peacock helped her select a week earlier.

If you're going to spend the day shopping, Peacock seems to suggest, it's best to do it in comfort, style and the company of good people.

9:55 a.m. Manoa — We arrive at East of Java, a newly opened Indonesian furnishings store tucked away in a rear pocket of Manoa Marketplace. Some of the best stores are in out-of-the-way locations, Peacock said. If you want the best deals, you have to seek them out in neighborhood shopping centers, strip malls and warehouse districts. Peacock relies on a quick eye and word of mouth to spot the new places.

East of Java founder Sui-Lan Ellsworth arrives and shows us a small, mixed bag of fixtures and artifacts. Near the entrance is a hand-hewn teak bench that catches the reporter's' eye. Peacock thinks it would look good in someone's entryway. It sells for about $300. She also asks to see a carved, oversized door in a back room that she's been eying on previous visits.

10:20 a.m. Mo'ili'ili — We head for Siam Imports near University Avenue. Here, owner Kevin Costello has put together a collection of garment, textiles and art pieces from Southeast Asia. When Peacock doesn't see what she wants, she asks Costello what he has stashed away in his storerooms upstairs. "One of the secrets is to always ask for what's not on display," she said. "Sometimes the treasures are still in the packing crate."

Costello obliges, taking us into two dusty, closet-like spaces stuffed with more Buddhas and other statues. We rummage through the piles, especially scrutinizing a few carvings from Burma, which have a discernably higher degree of artifice than those from Thailand. Each Buddha has its own aura: tranquil, whimsical, studious.

We admire a striking 4-foot-high Buddha bust made of papier mÅchÚ that he has been eyeing on previous trips. It sells for $4,000, but it probably won't fit anyone's home. "You can always buy things and return them if they don't work," Peacock suggests. "It's better than coming back next week and finding that someone else has already bought it."

Peacock buys two small Burmese Buddhas to give as Christmas presents for friends.

11:15 a.m. Iwilei — Our first stop at the Gentry Pacific Design Center on Nimitz Highway, is at Baik, a forerunner in the surprising bloom of Asian furnishing stores in Honolulu. It's been a fixture in the center for years.

The experience has helped owner Ed Tseu, who has been shopping in Indonesia for 25 years, to develop deep ties in the Indonesia markets. That translates into consistently high quality and a large selection. Newer stores often have a more mixed bag of quality, Peacock said.

"It's not that hard to spot the difference in quality," she said. "The good stuff just has a certain something about it. After a while, you can just tell."

11:45 a.m. Iwilei— We head down a back alley, across the street, into a warehouse on Iwilei Road, up a freight elevator and into Pacific Orient Traders store room.

Here hundreds of large furniture pieces from China, including dressers, armoires, tables and day beds, are on display. It might take an expert's eye to tell used from antique and antique from treasure, but there's no doubt the storeroom offers discerning shoppers a great alternative to the usual stuff found at Home World, CS Wo, Sears and other mainstream shops.

And the prices are comparable.

Kimberly, Peacock's client, arrives and pays for a large wooden cabinet in a Chinese red color that she plans to use as an entertainment center in her Makiki home. Meanwhile, Juju has found a compact, black Chinese opium bed that he thinks would look good in his home and starts negotiating with the store on the price. Eventually, they come down about 30 percent and he takes it.

"Absolutely always ask about the price," Peacock said. "It's almost always possible to negotiate on something you like."

12:30 p.m. Kalihi — It's time for lunch, but since we're on a roll and the shopping-shy reporter hasn't shown any signs of twitching yet, we decide to make one more stop before eating. This time we visit the wholesale side of the Watanabe Floral store on Nimitz Highway.

We make a beeline through the retail store, walk with authority into the back and brush into the giant coolers where thousands of flowers, everything from baby breaths to birds of paradise, are available by the dozen or more. Peacock frequently stops here when readying a home for a client or a photo shoot.

The fragrance in the coolers revives the group just enough to make it to lunch.

1:10 p.m. Chinatown— At Mei Sum restaurant on North Pauahi Street, we feast on dim sum and recount the morning experiences as shoppers everywhere often do over lunch. The exhausted reporter has been thinking that maybe it's time to call it a day, but after a couple of cups of tea, he too is ready to push on. We windowshop in a couple of stores in Chinatown, which recently has seen a mini-boom in artsy furniture shops, and breeze through a photo exhibit at the Ramsay Gallery.

"Now for something completely different," Peacock said.

2:15 p.m. Kaka'ako — We're definitely off the beaten track now. Behind the Ward Farmer's Market, in a row of warehouses home mostly to fish wholesalers, plywood suppliers, contractors and auto parts dealers, we park in front of a door marked "Fine Arts Associates at the Artloft."

Owner Greg Northrop maintains a sample of unusual works in the small warehouse space, but he has a list of artists who will accept commission work for public and private buildings. If you've got the means, he can help supply an original piece of art for your home.

2:40 p.m. Ala Moana, — In one of Honolulu's oldest, most nondescript residential neighborhoods, we find Cedar Street Galleries, which represents many of Hawai'i's finest artists. Here, there are literally hundreds of strikingly original pieces from Andy Kay, Brenda Cabayan, Russell Lowrey, Janet Mozley, George Woolard and many others.

Peacock stops here frequently to check on the latest offerings. The reporter feels drawn to one of Kay's architecturally abstract mixed-media pieces. He feels the $8,000 price tag validates his good taste. We linger, savoring the beauty and originality that you won't find in many more commercial art stores.

3:25 p.m. Ala Moana — Still on Cedar Street, the reporter feels a shopping shudder coming on. Or else he's reached a low-sugar moment. Fortunately, the gallery is next to the offices of La Gelateria Italian Style Frozen Deserts. We all swap flavors in the parking lot and declare lilikoi the winner of the day. Now, we're ready for the final push.

3:50 p.m. Waikiki — On the ground floor of the Waikiki Landmark (You know: the building with the hole in the middle), Maria Schilcher has established Zeku, a store for "Asian living style."

Here there are more Indonesian benches, great bamboo and cornhusk lamps for under $100, three-foot green glass vases for $500 and oversized furniture pieces selling for thousands of dollars. Oddly enough, the reporter finds something that he just has to have: a six-inch long, hand-carved piece of teak with five pukas, originally a betel nut container, now suitable for use as a desk buddy. He buys it for $30 without so much as a shiver or heart palpitation.

4:20 p.m. Waikiki — Our last stop is Garakuta-Do, a Japanese antiques store that recently moved to a new space near the entrance to Waikiki. The store's merchandise flows from room to room, offering old Noritake ware, lacquer ware, porcelain, furniture, shoji doors, antique kimonos and some things that are hard to categorize.

Juju takes a quick look around and says he'll wait for us at a nearby coffee shop. Later he admits he doesn't particularly like Japanese wooden furniture, which he says is less solid than that from elsewhere in Asia. Also, he was getting tired.

Owner Wataru Harada says he sells many of his Japanese antiques back to Japanese tourists for less than they'd pay at home. But a good portion of his merchandise — like the Meiji-era $3,500 garden shrine with a copper roof — still attracts local buyers.

4:45 p.m. Waikiki — Back at the Landmark, we cap the days with iced coffees and chit-chat about who bought what, who didn't and what it all means. We fight the rush-hour traffic back to Makiki and call it a day.

9 a.m. the next day, Kaka'ako — Peacock leaves a message on the reporter's answering machine.

"Hi. It's me. I've been thinking about our trip, and you remember that nice bench we saw in East of Java, the first place we went yesterday? The one near the entry? I thought it would look great in your house, maybe right outside your door or next to your bed.

In fact, I called them up and put a hold on it, told them you would come and look at it. If you don't want it, I'll probably buy it for myself."

That afternoon the reporter and his wife head to Manoa Market Place and plunk down $300 for a rough-hewn bench that a day earlier he didn't know he needed. The reporter starts to twitch.

Mike Leidemann can be reached at mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5460.