Stories of Aloha by Jocelyn Fujii
Family owned since 1946, Robert’s is old school, totally cool
[From Spirit of Aloha, December 2000]
“Before, he was the golfer,” Yukie Ozaki is saying. “Now, he’s my gardener. So now we come to work and talk about the lettuce and the eggplants and the vegetables, instead of about Robert’s.”
Robert’s is their store in Hanapepe, Kauai, named after Yukie’s husband. Yukie, Robert and I are sitting in the office of their 54-year-old store, and my eyes are darting all over the place as I try to take it all in. There are business awards on the wall, a faded poster that says, “Practice Courtesy, you’ll be amazed,” a color photograph of the old, green Watase Hotel in Hanapepe where they used to show movies in the garage. On the desk, a brand-new copy of The Book, the chichi Neiman Marcus catalog, jolts me out of the time warp. Most of all, I am struck by the Ozakis. He is a handsome, spry 86-year-old who still plays golf, she, a spirited 82, her face serene and unlined as she sits in her wheelchair and reminisces.
“I never wanted to marry a businessman,” she is saying with straight-faced good humor. “She was a tall, skinny girl,” he remembers.
I coax the past out of them: How they both were born in Hanapepe. How her parents owned a general store and his owned a store and a taxicab. How they first noticed each other while teenagers working at the cannery, and how the war broke out and they got married and had three children and stayed right where they were.
And how they have been married for 58 years and still work at the store every weekday. Their 6,000-square-foot store sells cowboy boots and shoes, aloha shirts and dresses, T-shirts, purses, Shiseido cosmetics, Niihau shells, Kauai coffee, sunglasses and 14-karat Hawaiian engraved jewelry, the mainstay of their business. Their Lihue store, run by their son Milton, carries only the Hawaiian and fine jewelry. When word gets out that there’s a Shiseido demonstration in the store, the local matrons flock to Robert’s, as they have for as long as they can remember.
Robert Ozaki belongs to the old school, and retailing is in his blood. A former show store manager, he opened Robert’s with only footwear and a small clothing selection. The business grew, then it got smaller: from four stores and 28 employees, there are now fewer than half that number staffing the two stores.
But they are still enjoying the ride. On the office wall, plaques and awards pay tribute to their contributions: the 1997 Hanapepe Merchant Award from the Hawaii House State of Representatives; an award of appreciation from the Jaycees; a notice that Robert Ozaki appears in Millenium Edition: Nationwide Register of Who’s Who in Executives and Business.
Through the doorway, on the wall of the adjoining room, are pictures of their two daughters, Marian Conroy, a flight attendant for Aloha Airlines, and Joyce Tomonari, the wife of Neiman Marcus manager Al Tomonari. There is Bing Crosby, smiling from a faded snapshot taken in 1962, at Kauai’s first golf tournament. The nattily suited Robert stands at the Statue of Liberty in 1949, his first trip to the Mainland.
Although everyone in Hanapepe knows Robert’s, the visitors come and go. “But they come back,” notes Robert. “When you are nice to people, they are so happy. They don’t forget.”
Just that morning, says Yukie, two sets of visitors drove 45 minutes from Lihue. They had not forgotten the Ozakis from previous visits to Hanapepe. “One couple came into Nawiliwili on a cruise ship,” she continues. “They took a taxi all the way here and back, just to come and say hello to us.”
ABOVE: The Ozakis—86-year-old Robert and 82-year-old Yukie—at work
in the Hanapepe store.
UPDATE: Robert’s closed its Hanapepe store in 2015. The Lihue store rents tuxedos and is known for its Hawaiian heirloom jewelry, clothing and accessories. Robert Ozaki passed away in 2002 at age 87.
Photo by Brett Uprichard
OWN THE COLLECTOR’S EDITION
Stories of Aloha: Homegrown Treasures of Hawai‘i is the acclaimed book by Jocelyn Fujii, a rich compilation of stories from the pages of Spirit of Aloha, with a foreword by Richard Chamberlain, who writes, “To embrace the soul of Hawaii, take Jocelyn’s hand and follow her into the lives of Hawaii’s greatest treasures: her people.” The book is available at www.hulamoonpress.com