Co-Existing with Kilauea: Selling Books Amid a Volcanic Eruption

Lava flow on Hawaii's Big Island in May (photo:

In the roughly eight weeks since Hawaii's Kilauea volcano began erupting, more than 670 homes have been destroyed, thousands of residents have been evacuated and, according to Hawaii News Now, more than 6,100 acres on the Big Island have been covered by lava. Explosions on Kilauea's summit have frequently exceeded the power of 5.0 earthquakes, residents across the island have had to deal with dangerous volcanic gasses and there is no indication of when it might end.

Located on the west side of the Big Island, nearly 100 miles from the volcanic fissures and evacuation zones, Kona Stories Book Store is in no direct danger from the lava flows or fires. But, explained co-owner Brenda McConnell, because of the island's prevailing wind patterns, "vog"--fumes and gasses emitted by the volcano--is getting carried to their area. "There are good days and bad days," said McConnell. "It's measured in PSI and we get alerts on our phones. That goes on every day."

McConnell noted that while the volcanic gasses and smoke can indeed be dangerous, particularly for children, the elderly and those with compromised respiratory systems, the whole island is not actually on fire, as the national news might make it seem. Most of the resorts and beaches are open, and only a small part of the Big Island is "actually dangerous." Nevertheless, vacation travel is down significantly, with many hotels reporting a 50% downswing in tourism since the eruptions started.

"We're at 20% down," said McConnell, who opened the store with her business partner, Joy Vogelgesang, in 2006. "We've never been down. We're always either flat or up a little bit."

Tourism is Hawaii's biggest industry, McConnell continued, and a significant decline in travel can lead to local residents either working reduced hours or getting laid off, and if local consumers don't have a steady stream of income, that would lead to less discretionary spending on things like books. She recalled that a handful of people have dropped by the store who said they'd lost their homes and were spending a night or two on the west side before flying out. McConnell also had an author event booked in August with a writer who lives not far from Kilauea.

"She's on the mainland waiting to see if she can come back," said McConnell. "She may not be able to participate."

Display of volcano-related books at Kona Stories

Although sales are down at the store in general, volcano books have actually seen a big uptick in sales. And while fewer tourists are traveling to the island, geologists are arriving from all over to study the volcano, and McConnell said that a lot of geologists have dropped by the store with their children. She's set up volcano displays featuring everything from books about the goddess Pele, who in the traditional Hawaiian religion inhabits the Kilauea volcano, to science titles for children about volcanism. She noted that two previously out-of-print titles about Pele have come back in circulation, and while it is too dangerous for people to go out and view the volcano with their own eyes, they're definitely keen on getting books about volcanoes for their children.

With no indication of when the eruptions might end, there is a great deal of uncertainty about the future. McConnell reported that the winter is by far the busiest time of the year for her store, and she's already heard from some snowbird customers who've decided not to make the trip this year. Many of the condos near her store, she added, are timeshares, which need to be booked in advance. She expressed concern that a significant number of her winter customers will have to choose soon whether to make the trip months from now.

"This is the time when they have to decide where to spend their winter months," she said. "Even if [the eruption] stops in September, the choice might already be made."

In talking with other local business owners, McConnell has not heard of any closures yet on the western side of the island. But in places like Volcano Village, where Volcano National Park is located, many businesses have closed temporarily, while others are doing whatever they can to stay afloat. In the case of the upscale inn and restaurant Kilauea Lodge, that includes offering $15 dinners.

McConnell said she doesn't know what the fall or winter will look like, and has yet to decide what to do about fall and holiday ordering, whether she'll cut back or order the usual amount. Owners of all kinds of businesses on the Big Island, she said, will have to work out similar dilemmas for themselves. She remarked: "This is going to be interesting." --Alex Mutter

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