How a Small Business Helped the Community Sew Their Way Through a Pandemic
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Old timers will remember the name of Kuni Dry Goods, or just “Kuni’s,” but if they haven’t ventured down to Mö‘ili‘ili in a while, they might be surprised that the name lives on in Kuni Island Fabrics, a legacy of that venerable old business. And while a small shop, its business and sewing classes are now experiencing a resurgence, even in these pandemic times.
Just a few feet ‘Ewa from the intersection of University Avenue, South King and Beretania, the store stands near the corner of (and sharing a parking lot with) FedEx Kinko’s copy center and Le Flowers florist.
Kuni Dry Goods was created by Kosajiro Kunimune who emigrated from Hiroshima in 1920 to work on the plantations. Shortly after, employed by a wholesale firm, he traveled to the Big Island and the mainland. He came back to Honolulu and opened his first store in Pälama, followed by a restaurant in front of the old Dole cannery on Iwilei Road.
Kosajiro bought Moiliili Store (located at the current Kokua Market site) from the Yamada family. The Moiliili Store was a one-stop shop where you could buy fresh vegetables, meat, crack seed, brooms and fabric. Kosajiro and his oldest daughter, Misako, opened Kuni Dry Goods in 1948 to separate the growing dry-goods business. He had seven kids, the last being Tom. The two oldest sons, Makoto and Frank, took over Moiliili Store in 1956, while the two youngest, Harry and Tom, took over Kuni Dry Goods. In its heydey, Kuni had multiple locations across Hawai‘i in the Kamehameha Shopping Center, Pearlridge Center and Windward City Shopping Center.
The business was still thriving in 1974, when 21-year-old Theresa “Terri” Kamakana, née Shulz, moved to Hawai‘i right out of Central Michigan University, thinking it would be one of the first stops on a carefree trip around the world. Instead, Kamakana never left the islands; she got hired as assistant manager at Kuni’s Pearlridge store, then at Hawai‘i Kai. Next, she met her husband on a blind date, got married and had four kids, which changed her plans forever.
When the business was winding down, Kamakana bought the name and business from Harry Kunimune in December 1996. After renovation work, the store reopened in 1997 as Kuni Island Fabrics. (The Kunimune children still own the property under the building as a family business.)
Besides continuing the legacy of selling fabrics and sewing notions, the store sells handmade products like baby futon, clothing and bags. There’s a wide range of hard-to-find Japanese and Hawaiian fabrics available. “Even people from the mainland come here once a year [to] buy fabrics,” Kamakana says.
The store has also always offered community members sewing classes which teach how to make clothing, bags and patchwork quilts. Classes are usually held monthly; you sign up for the day and time on a month-by-month basis.
Interestingly, except for having to close these classes down for a few months during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, this was not the worst time that Kuni Island Fabrics had to weather. Kamakana recalls that right after 9/11, things had looked their bleakest for her business. Tourism dried up, “Local people were getting laid off at hotels. We do a local business, so when they (local customers) weren’t working, they weren’t coming in,” she recalls.
In comparison, the pandemic created a surprising increase in fabric sales because all of a sudden, people were scrambling to find fabric to make their own cloth masks, which were quickly becoming scarce.
Kuni’s has four sewing teachers, each specializing in different skills: Donna Kurozawa, Val Ahina, Mary Carvalho and Rocky Roane. It’s a close-knit crew. Val Ahina, for example, came to Kuni as a student of Hiroko Ono. When Ono retired five years ago, Ahina was approached to teach some of the store’s classes.
Student Georgeanna Mann is a regular student at the Friday night class who enjoys its sewing lessons and camaraderie. “It’s the people. Everybody’s so wonderful and supportive.” she says. Another student, Gay Satsuma, adds “Coming to quilt class every Friday is a way to unwind at the end of the week to learn how to sew something new like a furoshiki bag and to share with each other what happened during the week. It’s cheaper than going to a therapist!”
Running a small business takes a lot of time and effort for not much remuneration. As anyone can tell you, keeping a small firm going in Hawai‘i can be a struggle. Kamakana sometimes dreams about being able to travel more freely. But she keeps hanging in there. “I enjoy the work … I enjoy the customers, the students. The neighborhood has changed a little bit, but we have a good time here.” Kamakana also gives back to the community, holding fundraisers for non-profits such as the Hawaii Foodbank, American Heart Association and American Cancer Society. This friendly neighborhood shop, with its long history in the community, has a lot of heart and soul.
“Mö‘ili‘ili-The Life of a Community,” edited by Laura Ruby (Mö‘ili‘ili Community Center, 2005)
Wayne Muromoto is a former Hawai‘i Herald staff writer. The Waialua High School and Cornell University alumnus teaches digital art and digital photography at Leeward Community College. Wayne also continues to pursue peace through a bowl of tea as a practitioner of Urasenke tea ceremony.