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Keeper of the books, Jo Ann-style

By Staff | Jan 17, 2013

Jo Ann Carroll has been selling books for decades.

LAHAINA – What makes a pretty good bookstore is a decent selection of books, a willingness to make suggestions and a friendly atmosphere.

Jo Ann Carroll, chatty, laughter-loving impresario of the Maui Friends of the Library Bookstore at The Wharf Cinema Center and former owner of the Old Book Emporium, should know. She has worked at or run six different bookstores and is adding a seventh.

Like many a former Mainlander, Jo Ann’s start in Hawaii began after a life-changing event: a divorce.

Growing up in a wealthy community called La Canada, Carroll made her way to Kona on Hawaii Island 38 years ago, moving in with a sister.

Like many other newcomers, she began in the restaurant business as a short order cook. At Buzz’s (a cousin of Maui’s Buzz’s Wharf), she made more sandwiches than she could count and learned to cook Portuguese bean soup

Does she still make it?

“Yeah, I do,” she said, in a chatty style that has become her hallmark during years conversing with book lovers.

After work, she continued, “I’d run down the street to work at without a doubt one of the best bookstores ever by a man who really knew books. It was astonishing. When people came in, he was really funny. He would say, ‘I don’t read books.’ “

What did she do there? “As little as possible,” she joked.

Retreating back to the Mainland for three years, Carroll learned she was in the wrong place. It was the extremes. “It was either too hot or too cold, so I moved to Oahu and worked at Waldenbooks’ Kahala store. It was a million dollar store.”

At Booklines – now Hawaii’s premier book distributor of books, started by a guy who used to sell them from the trunk of his car – Jo Ann worked in the office. She later moved to Maui to become a Booklines sales rep. “I hated it,” she said.

The Booklines owner ended up acquiring Upstart Crow, later known as Whalers Bookstore, and brought Jo Ann in to run it. “You could buy wine, cheese and great sandwiches there. I ran that for five years and by 1995 had built it up. It was great fun but didn’t last.

“After that,” she continued, “I didn’t want a regular job. I had 2,000 books at home, so I opened my own store in Wailuku. Carroll also worked with good friend Barbara Long to – as she puts it – “help beautify Wailuku.” Long owned a property in Lahaina and offered a reasonable rent. Carroll’s Old Lahaina Book Emporium opened in the spot where Jim Kingwell now has his gallery.

A couple of years ago, Jo Ann found she was trading more books than she was selling. People would bring in books and trade them for ones in Jo Ann’s stock of some 20,000 volumes.

People who were once good customers would come in to browse, then go home to download reading from the Internet for their Kindles, Jo Ann explained. Annual revenues barely paid the bills. Carroll believes bookstores as we know them will soon be like antique stores – repositories of the old, not the new.

Then the knowledgeable bookseller received an offer she could not refuse. Collectors Tom and Machele Stabler bought out her entire stock, and the store closed.

Jo Ann left the books, but the books wouldn’t leave Jo Ann. The Stablers donated thousands of books they didn’t want back to the Maui Friends of the Library. With that, the friends group – which had long sold used books at a facility in dusty Puunene – got into the used book business big time.

Who else but Jo Ann to run a new used bookstore when The Wharf Cinema Center agreed to provide space? After three months of effort by Jo Ann, supported by volunteers, she presided over the store’s grand opening with the mayor in attendance.

You might figure Jo Ann is an avid reader. She is. She once favored mysteries like most of her customers but today likes true crime, books like Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” for example.

Jo Ann is a little leery after 20 years recommending books. Once she recommended a volume called “Mosquito Coast.” The buyer returned after three days and threw the book in her face.

“Worst book I ever read,” the buyer said.

Jo Ann’s response: “Why did you finish it?”

Frustrated reader: “I finish what I start.”

Popular at The Wharf store are mysteries, science fiction and books on Hawaii. Hawaiiana books are scarce, since most locals keep them and Mainlanders bring them home, Jo Ann said.

For that reason, she has put in a stock of brand new books. Recommendations: Start with “Shoal of Time” and move on to “The Betrayal of Liliuokalani.”

Maui Friends each year receives thousands of books and has a whole warehouse full. A new store at Queen Ka’ahumanu Center is selling thousands of dollars’ worth a month.

Who will run that store? One guess…

Columnist’s Notebook: Stop by. Jo Ann is always looking for volunteers, and you can learn how to operate a cash register. Comments on this and previous columns are welcome at norm@mauicommunicators.com.