In 2006, Brenda McConnell and Joy Vogelgesang came to the Big Island of Hawaii from California to open an independent bookstore. Vogelgesang had worked for many years in the corporate world before quitting her job and holding positions at both Barnes & Noble and Borders, while McConnell had worked in medicine and had no prior experience in bookselling. (Before opening the store, McConnell "hadn't even run a cash register.") They opened Kona Stories during Thanksgiving weekend 2006.
|Joy Vogelgesang (left) and Brenda McConnell
"By that time I'd left the medical profession and wasn't sure what I wanted to do," recalled McConnell. "It was much the same for Joy. We had this far-fetched dream of owning an indie bookstore."
The owners worked hard to make the store successful (a "great, fun project," according to McConnell), and, after four years, moved to a larger location in the Keauhou Shopping Center in Kailua-Kona, on the west side of the island of Hawaii.
Today, Kona Stories is a 2,000-sq.-ft. general-interest store with some 10,000 titles. Although the store has "every section imaginable," books by local authors and Hawaiiana books--titles pertaining to the history and culture of Hawaii--are especially popular. By volume, greeting cards are the store's bestselling sideline. McConnell, Vogelgesang and one part-time bookseller make up the staff, and two cats, Noble and Shadow, prowl the premises.
"We went from a pretty small shop to a larger shop, and being in a shopping center meant longer hours, more publicity. It boosted our storefront," explained McConnell.
The Big Island has a population of about 150,000, with some 35,000 on the west side of the island. "Our community is pretty small," McConnell noted. "What makes it all work is that there are so many tourists." She called the store size "perfect" for the community. "Any bigger wouldn't benefit us."
Hawaii isn't exactly a regular stop on the author tour circuit, but that doesn't stop McConnell and Vogelgesang from running frequent, and very popular, author events. They've hosted authors--mostly local, self-published writers--since opening, but their author program didn't take off until after the move to the shopping center.
"We used to do events all the time with just one author," said McConnell. "And they'd bring their five people and it would be sort of frustrating--you go to all this trouble to host and promote the event and here's five people. Then it was kind of a light bulb moment of 'oh, if we have three authors this would work better.' They'd each bring their five people, and then we'd get 15."
The realization resulted in Words and Wine, an author event series that launched in 2010. On the first Tuesday of each month, three authors are invited to a joint reading. The majority of these authors are locals; authors who are on the island for vacation will also occasionally drop in. The first half of the event is a "meet-and-greet mingle" with appetizers (called pupu in Hawaiian) and, of course, wine. Then, each author speaks or reads from his or her book for 15 to 20 minutes.
"All of a sudden it became really successful," recounted McConnell, adding that Words and Wine typically draws between 35 to 70 people. "It's a festive thing. Food and wine bring people in. That was really the turn-around for author events at our store. Now people come in and are flabbergasted. They can't believe the turnout; authors can't believe the sales."
Many of the store's fixtures are on rollers, and McConnell and Vogelgesang push them to the side to make space. For large events, such as the monthly children's storytime series and visits from very prominent authors, Kona Stories takes over the Keauhou Shopping Center's courtyard. The store also hosts three monthly, active book clubs: a fiction group, a nonfiction group and a lesbian fiction group.
"We're a little off the radar screen," said McConnell, "but that doesn't stop us." --Alex Mutter