Exploring the record stores of Honolulu

[Hungry Ear Records interior, Honolulu, HI]

I joked with my mom that I didn’t want to travel anywhere in 2018 because I had gone to Victoria, BC and Salem, OR in 2017. Then I ended up going to Alexandria, VA in June and making a family visit to Honolulu in July.

Having lived in Austin, Seattle and New York City, I’ve noticed the health of a city’s music scene is reflected in the state of its record shops. By that measure, Honolulu is in passable health. The local shops dedicate significant shelf space to artists performing Hawaiian music, but since the scene itself doesn’t support much beyond that, Honolulu’s music retail options are limited.

That’s not to say you can’t find gems in Honolulu, but it usually takes a lot luck and some restrained expectations.

Hungry Ear Records

Hungry Ear had a prime location in Kailua, which it had to trade for a less-than-prime location near the University of Hawaii. It had to move again, this time to a far more spacious and pleasing spot in Kaka`ako.

As much as I miss the Kailua location, the Kaka`ako space is nice.

Hungry Ear has always been conscientious about organizing its stock well, and it’s a breeze to jump from genre to genre. Newly pressed issues take up a separate set of racks than used, and CDs form the perimeter.

Honolulu’s isolation means the stock is only as good as what happens to be on the island, but Hungry Ear somehow manages to find some winners, such as an original pressing of The Pogues’ Rum Sodomy & the Lash or a mid-80s reissue of McCoy Tyner’s The Real McCoy.

Idea’s Books and Music

On the day I visited Idea’s, a fellow customer asked whether the store was in the old location of Jelly’s Books and Music, not knowing he was posing to the question to the proprietor of both institutions.

Jelly’s has a long history in Honolulu. It flourished in the 1990s, then sold its locations to the Cheapo’s chain. It reopened again with locations in `Aiea and Kaka`ako, before downsizing again to a single location and rebranding as Idea’s.

Idea’s Books and Music is a far smaller operation than Jelly’s in its heyday, but the rustic charm is still in place. Idea’s stock reflects the taste of Honolulu in general, so it’s unlikely you’d find something esoteric.

But a bit of digging can uncover some surprises. On this last trip, I snagged an old rental copy of Tomosaka Rie’s Murasaki, a J-pop idol album renowned for including three early songs by Shiina Ringo.

Barnes and Noble

The compact disc boom of the 1990s allowed Honolulu to support three locations of Tower Records, two locations of Borders and the first Barnes and Noble location in Kahala Mall.

Today, a single Barnes and Noble store remains in Ala Moana Center.

The music section of Barnes and Noble has survived by adapting — first by including DVDs and Blu Ray, now by supporting vinyl.

The only time I’ve ever bought vinyl from Barnes and Noble in Seattle was for the exclusve release of Enya’s Dark Sky Island, but I make it a point to visit Barnes and Noble in Honolulu because of the difference in sales tax. In Seattle, it’s 10.1%. In Honolulu, 4.172%.

So I pretty much go to Barnes and Noble not for selection but for a 5.928% sales tax discount.


In the early 1990s, Shirokiya had its own music section. As the music industry fortunes turned, Shirokiya sub-leased the space to Book-Off. When Shirokiya relaunched as a food court, Book-Off moved to Don Quioxte. (Yes, there is a department store chain named after a Spanish novel, and it’s based in Japan.)

My friend Jen dislikes Book-Off because it makes terrible offers to people selling their books, and when I visited the Ward Warehouse location of Book-Off in 2016, the store was trying to sell fair- and poor-condition vinyl for upwards of $20. The Ward location was razed earlier this year.

So no, Book-Off isn’t the most reputable of retailers, but it was the place I could go to buy used Japanese rock and pop CDs.

Until this year.

I went to Don Quixote to find the CD stock completely replaced with Western artists. Honolulu no longer has a retail location that caters to J-Pop fans, a development that shouldn’t have been surprising given Kinokuniya’s move in the same direction.

You could say I was disappointed.

Photo credit: Hungry Ear Records Facebook page

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