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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Can mom-and-pop stores survive?

By Will Hoover
Advertiser North Shore Writer

The popular Matsumoto shave-ice store in Hale'iwa is owned by the founders' 55-year-old son who's unsure if any of his teenage offspring will take over when he retires.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Cathy Aoki, left, along with her father, Michael Aoki, assumed ownership of the Aoki Shave Ice store after the recent death of her grandmother. "It's been pretty much figured out since high school that I would end up taking it over," she said.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Stan Matsumoto, 55, proprietor of the Matsumoto shave-ice and grocery store in Hale'iwa, can remember when he'd rather go surfing than help with the business. "I was like my kids," Matsumoto said, referring to his three teenagers. "I didn't know what I wanted to do."

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The H. Miura Store has shut down after 87 years of doing business in Hale'iwa. Its specialty was field wear for plantation workers.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The Sagara Store in Waialua closed its doors last July after 83 years in business. A note posted outside thanked faithful customers.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The problem was quietly spelled out last July in a short, handwritten notice stapled by the entrance of a tiny wooden plantation store in Waialua:

"We thank you deeply for your loyal and faithful patronage through the 83 years we have been here," read the note, which ended with: "Please keep well and we thank you again Aloha and Sayonara."

With that, the Sagara Store officially shut its doors after four generations of feeding local folks. Another North Shore mom-and-pop shop was no more.

Five months later, in Hale'iwa, the venerated H. Miura plantation clothing store shut down after 87 years of doing business in the same location.

While residents shake their heads and mourn the loss, local leaders are fretting about how to stem the tide of what they see as a disturbing trend: As long-time family-business owners age, younger members of the clan seem increasingly less interested in maintaining the long hours and tedious work required to keep the stores going.

Even Stan Matsumoto, who runs the most famous North Shore mom-and-pop store of them all Matsumoto Shave Ice says that so far none of his three children, ages 13, 14 and 16, has expressed a desire to take over the business.

"I probably have another 10 years to go," said Matsumoto, who, at 55, is the same age as the store that his own mom and pop, Helen and Mamoru Matsumoto, started back in 1951.

"Unless I'm a die-hard like my dad and keep going."

Antya Miller, executive director of the North Shore Chamber of Commerce, says it's time to get pro-active.

"These plantation-era buildings with families running the businesses are the lifeblood of the community," she said. "It's what makes this place special, and what people come to see."

Miller said the chamber is considering sponsoring "succession planning" workshops that focus on how to prepare the next generation to take over a family business.

She also encourages partnering with the local schools, especially Waialua High School, to have students work part time in family-run businesses.

"If they have hands-on experience, then they get enthusiastic about it," she said. "They get ideas. They develop an understanding of what the community is about."

Others say that enticing the younger generation to get involved is only part of the solution.

"A lot of it is in the store finding the right niche," said North Shore resident Roberts "Bob" Leinau, who co-authored a narrative with resident Meryl Andersen titled "Why Is Hale'iwa a Historic Town?"

"There are dynamics in the retail trade. Guys who are selling buggy whips aren't doing a brisk business."

Donovan Dela Cruz, who represents the North Shore on the City Council, said mom-and-pop shops were products of the long-gone sugar plantation era.

Lacking their original purpose, they are now threatened by a modern, mobile society that can conveniently travel to big-box stores with huge selections and lower prices.

But mom-and-pop shops can remain viable, he said, if they can transition from a plantation culture to a tourist culture by capitalizing on their genuine rural appeal and old-fashioned charm.

A successful example is Matsumoto Shave Ice, which went from a plantation-era general store to a tourist-era shave-ice and T-shirt emporium all the while keeping its rustic, old-time flavor and appearance, said Dela Cruz.

In the meantime, he said, local residents need to patronize the stores they want to keep around.

"You can say you 'support' them, but you've got to go there and eat, or buy their stuff," said Dela Cruz, who in 2000 wrote a book on Japanese mom-and-pop eateries titled "The Okazu Guide."

"It may cost a few cents more, or even a dollar or two more, but you can't bring them back once they're gone."

And, at least some in the younger generation of family-business operators say they have no intention of allowing the mom-and-pop tradition to fade away.

Family matriarch and Aoki's Shave Ice founder Sumie Shimoda Aoki died this month at age 86, after a long career running a taxi service, a sewing school and a Hale'iwa Theatre concession.

But her granddaughter, Cathy Aoki, recently took ownership of the family concern, along with her father, Michael Aoki.

The younger Aoki, who's at work bright and early seven days a week hand-mixing 27 different flavors of shave-ice syrup, is in it for the long haul.

"It's been pretty much figured out since high school that I would end up taking it over," said Aoki on her 32nd birthday last Wednesday. She can't imagine ever doing anything else.

The hibiscus-red plantation-era structure built in the 1920s on Hale'iwa's main drag won't change much, she said. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Aoki's Shave Ice store, with its uneven concrete floor and shelves cluttered with old photos, antique bottles and Hawai'i bric-a-brac, will remain about as down home as it gets, she promised.

And Stan Matsumoto, a force in making his family's shave-ice shop world-famous, says it's too soon to rule out his kids as future shave-ice entrepreneurs.

After all, his dad was convinced that Stan would make a disastrous business proprietor.

"I was like my kids," Matsumoto laughed. "I didn't know what I wanted to do.

"Plus, I always had the bad habit of running away from the store and going surfing. My dad would be furious when I'd come back two hours later."

Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.