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Small merchants brave rough seas

By Staff | Apr 1, 2010

Joan McKelvey (right) at her South Seas at the Hyatt shop enjoys a good laugh with Puamana’s Carol Coe, a new customer who purchased a necklace and turtle sculpture.

LAHAINA — “Business is great. People are terrific. Life is wonderful,” a Maui bumper sticker reads. But for some small merchants, only the last two lines remain true these days.

Small business owners — not the least of them Joan McKelvey’s South Seas at the Hyatt — have been struggling. Time for a little history.

McKelvey, a Lahaina Town mover and shaker for decades, has seen a lot of ups and few downs during 39 years operating one of the most successful, oldest shops catering to visitors on this part of Maui.

During a visit in 1971 through the South Pacific, Joanie, as friends know her, bought voraciously to the amusement of Mac McKelvey, her late fighter pilot husband and Amfac executive who died in 1994. After the trip, beautiful artifacts and found objects began to arrive at Kahului Airport.

 Her husband, creator and builder of the highly popular Sugar Cane Train later on, asked, “What are you going to do with all this stuff?”

“Well,” Joan told him, “I guess I’ll open a shop.”

Strolling on Front Street, she encountered Harlow Wright, a former plantation luna (boss) who, by then, was managing buildings for a relative. He was standing there wondering what to do with an empty building across the street from the Wo Hing Temple. McKelvey recalled that Harlow used to have a big party for tenants every year that always ended with him standing up and shouting “Bonsai!” three times. “That was his claim to fame,” she said.

Her new shop space was once a retirement home for Lahaina’s Chinese community. One time, a lady with an amazing talent, the story goes, stopped by and walked straight to Mac’s office, where she said she smelled opium. The sweet smell had lingered there for years.

The first shop “was a wonderful place with coconut trees overlooking the ocean. Nuns from the convent would come down on Sundays and meditate,” Joan recalled.

Most of the years since, the still sprightly entrepreneur has made three trips a year to places like Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, New Caledonia, Indonesia, Burma, India, Nepal and Thailand. She brought back ornate blowguns used to hunt small game, beautifully crafted swords and even Chinese artifacts including Buddha artwork. Her longtime contact in Hong Kong provided her with Chinese treasures well before China opened up trade to the west.

The items were so popular that she was able to open new South Sea shops in Kona, Kauai and at the old Kapalua Bay Hotel. Her shop at Coconut Palms on Kauai was destroyed by Hurricane Iniki.

For 29 years, she prospered at the Kapalua Shops above the Kapalua Bay Hotel. The beautiful property was torn down by Maui Land & Pineapple Co. Inc. to make way for condos in 2007.  

“It was just so cruel to destroy it,” she declared. “They were saying it wasn’t making any money. So, okay, do something so it makes money!”

That’s what Joan is continuing to do now with her one remaining shop at the Hyatt across from Macy’s. There one can find $80 necklaces Joan makes herself from special shells and gemstones, wooden sculptures of tiny turtles, a New Guinea slim four-foot-high drum with a snake skin design ($365), a rare musical instrument with a series of vertical “pipes” from Timor, ($525), and even a man-sized carving created by a renowned New Zealander that once graced the front door of her former home in Napili.

McKelvey takes a trip only when her stock is depleted. She hasn’t made one for a year but is planning one soon. “The showdown started in January of ’09 when we suddenly realized it was way under ’08,” she said. “It hit everybody.  

“I have never seen anything like this. In the 1970s, we had some bad months not too long after we opened and more around 1979 through the 1980s. Then we had a real downer after September 11. That was nothing to compare with this,” she continued.  

“Today, the restaurants are doing reasonably well, but retail still is not. It started to pick up in January but hasn’t gone high enough. This has taken every bit of backup I have.”

Some of the businesses that started about the same time as Joan are Jim Killett’s Lahaina Galleries, Bob Hartman’s Whaler’s Locker curio shop, Leola Vierra’s Leola’s Clothing shops at four Lahaina locations, Howard Konrad’s Lahaina Scrimshaw and Alan Walker’s Lahaina Printsellers Ltd. She said they are all waiting for the economy to improve.

Like other longtime merchants, Joan continues to soldier on. She now works one day a week at the shop in the Hyatt, leaving the rest to employees. She still has a lot of energy at 83.

 Last year, McKelvey returned as president of LahainaTown Action Committee — a group she was instrumental in founding 32 years ago. Joan put in motion a plan that reduced the non-profit’s large debt by 60 percent.

Some day, she hopes LAC will revive its premier event, “A Taste of Lahaina,” but perhaps in a different form.

McKelvey noted, “I am still running all the time. I don’t take any pills or any vitamins.”  

Her recipe for a long life: genes plus “two or three good glasses of wine at dinner every night. My mother passed away there in December, and she was almost 104. My dad was 94 when he died.”

Joan’s has said she wants to live to be 98.

“It’s all downhill after that,” she said with a bit of a twinkle in her eye.