Longtime surf and sport shop to close

KAHULUI – A surf and sport shop that grew from a “tiny little shack” into a multimillion-dollar business boasting the largest rental fleet of surfboards and water gear in the state is closing its doors after more than three decades, the owner said this week.

Hawaiian Island Surf & Sport is selling everything in the store, including stand-up paddleboards, snorkel gear, clothing and even posters off the wall, as it moves to close in the next couple weeks. Owner Dennis O’Donnell said that he cannot afford “the premium rent” at the Dairy Road location across from Kmart and that closing was “the last resort.”

About a dozen workers will lose their jobs with the closure.

“I don’t want this turning into a funeral of a mom-and-pop shop, but celebrating the life of

the shop,” O’Donnell said Tuesday. “It’s hard to see my staff let go though, because we have people who have worked in the shop 10, 15, 20 years. People walked in and see that same face year after year, which is a testament to the quality of the shop, and I tried to instill that into workers.

“I mean we’re in a surf shop on Maui. Is there any better job than that? I tried to show that to everyone who walked in the door.”

The business was founded by Len Cappe in 1983 in a small storefront where the Costco bakery department currently is located.

O’Donnell, 54, joined the shop a few years later after graduating from Pennsylvania State University and working at ComputerLand in what is now the Queen Ka’ahumanu Center, selling the first Apple Macintosh computers on the island.

“My grad present was to visit my sister, who was working at Haleakala National Park,” he said, adding that he wound up selling his return ticket and staying on the island. “It’s probably considered the world’s longest two-week vacation.”

O’Donnell would later become Cappe’s business partner and bought him out about four years ago. He has been running the store with his wife, Robin, who handles the accounting. His daughter, Carly, grew up working at the store during summers before going off to college.

Windsurfing and other water sports quickly became O’Donnell’s passions while Maui became the “epicenter” for professionals and research development, he said. The small store moved to its larger current location in 1994 after Costco acquired the old property.

“When we started it, everybody in the shop was in their mid-20s and B.C. – before children,” he said. “No wives, no kids, I don’t think anyone even owned a house, and all we did was windsurf or surf. We were living the dream on Maui.”

In its new location, the business distanced itself from the surf boutique stores that specialized in clothing and “selling the image of surfing” by becoming a true water-sports store that sold the real goods, O’Donnell said. The store would grow into the largest rental fleet in the state and became popular for its “try-to-buy” program, which allowed people to try out different boards and to pay a rental fee before buying them.

The location near the airport boosted business and became a popular stop for visitors as they hit the road. He said his clientele includes people from around the world but is generally split equally between visitors and locals.

“We always felt we were their first stop and last stop to and from Maui,” O’Donnell said. “We have a drive-thru so we’d load up their car while they filled out their paperwork, and they’d be out in 10 minutes or less with the most modern equipment in the world. We used to joke that they could beep the horn and throw it out the window and we’ll catch it.”

Over time, retail giants, or the “big boxes,” began opening up on the island and the store lost some business, O’Donnell said. He said Costco, Sports Authority and others began selling rash guards, boogie boards and even stand-up paddleboards at lower prices and “picked off the base beginners” in the market.

The company had to distinguish itself by selling higher-end gear and quality materials as well as hiring knowledgeable staff who could help customers with everything from rental gear to snorkeling equipment.

The store was recognized as the island’s best stand-up paddleboard shop for six years in a row by readers of Maui Time. It is considered the fastest-growing sport in the world and many credited stand-up paddleboarding as the savior of the industry during the Great Recession that began in late 2007.

Maui is home to some of the greatest water-sports athletes in the world, including Dave Kalama, Kai Lenny and Dusty Payne. O’Donnell said that professionals from around the world have flocked to the island over the years as the industry has transitioned from sport to sport over the past three decades.

Windsurfing became hugely popular on Maui during the 1980s due to the island’s trade winds blowing 300 days of the year and its warm water and air, O’Donnell said. Hookipa Beach Park used to host two international events every year and still hosts the season-ending event for the world’s top windsurfing tour, the Professional Windsurfers Association.

“Paia was called the windsurfing capital of the world,” he said.

Windsurfing faded some in the mid-1990s as kiteboarding became popular. In the mid-2000s, stand-up paddleboarding rose to fame, and Maui was one of the first to reap the rewards.

As each trend sprouted up, O’Donnell said, his business was able to stay ahead of the curve and capitalize on it, thanks to the passionate and “hardcore aquaholics” working at the store.

“In retail, you’re always looking for the next golden goose,” he said. “Because the staff was so passionate about water sports, whenever anything new came onto the scene, the watermen and -women were able to jump on it and learn this new sport. They quickly became experts in retailing and renting for it.”

Since announcing the closing of the store a couple weeks ago, customers have dropped by to say their goodbyes, share stories and hug workers. O’Donnell, who spent 60 hours a week managing the store, could not help but choke up when talking about the end of the business.

“The outpouring of support from the community was beyond my wildest imagination,” he said. “It was so humbling to hear the support pouring in and their sadness and shock. I never realized we had such a positive effect on so many people on the island, and it’s really touching and really humbling. We try to be good, we try to be pono, and all we do is try to help people as they come in the store.

“To see it come back is really nice.”

Although O’Donnell would not have closed the store if he could have afforded the rent, he said business had slowed down since the opening of the first phase of the Kahului Airport access road in August. He said Dairy Road traffic is expected to decrease by 10,000 cars a day after the second phase is completed in April, when motorists will bypass Dairy road and travel across Hana Highway directly to the airport.

O’Donnell said that he does not have a definite date for the closure and is in the process of liquidating hundreds of boards and countless other merchandise.

He is not sure what his next job will be, but his mind is “completely wide open to all options and suggestions.”

“I’m stoked for the ride we had, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m very blessed for the people I’ve met around the world and my family,” he said.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.