The 50 Best Record Stores In America is an essay series where we attempt to find the best record store in every state. These aren’t necessarily the record stores with the best prices or the deepest selection; you can use Yelp for that. Each record store featured has a story that goes beyond what’s on its shelves; these stores have history, foster a sense of community and mean something to the people who frequent them.
Living in Hawaiʻi is both a unique privilege and a blasted curse. We’re surrounded by breathtaking scenery, and blessed by gentle trade winds, kissing our cheeks all day. At the same time, we have the highest per-capita homeless rate in the country, and government corruption that rivals any “good ole boy” network in the deep south. It’s a land of extremes.
Those of us who choose to make our homes here (native-born and transplants) do so happily. We’ve made this choice because we value the intangible spirit of these islands and how it makes us feel. We live with the sometimes raw and prickly reality of a place that isn’t always eager for change, especially when it comes at the expense of a beautiful past. People here know that the newest, shiniest thing isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. That’s a basic tenet of modern Hawaiian history, and it’s a concept that permeates every aspect of life here. This longing for days past, coupled with a ferocious belief in the power of music, makes Hawaiʻi fertile ground for a community of die-hard vinyl fans.
As if that weren’t enough, Hawaiʻi is also a hotbed of vintage kitsch; Don Ho, Elvis, tiki drinks, dashboard hula girls, and WWII propaganda posters. They’re all ubiquitous reminders of the inherent value of relics from the past. For a state of fewer than 1.5 million people, Hawaiʻi has a surprising number of venues to buy records. The majority of these are not actual record stores, but many spots throughout the islands offer a chance to find that hidden gem you’ve been hoping for.
Thrift shops, independent bookstores and swap meets are often the best non-record store options. Perhaps the best non-traditional place to hunt for hard-to-find titles is the Friends of the Library of Hawaiʻi’s annual music and book sale in Honolulu, where you can find a broad mix of Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian music.
Nevertheless, having recognized the contributions of the supporting cast of local vinyl purveyors, the title of this post is in fact “The Best Record Store In Hawaiʻi.” The 50th state’s best spot for obsessive vinyl hunting is Hungry Ear Records in Honolulu. They are without a doubt the top dog (I won’t call them the “big kahuna” because that’ll get you punched in the kidney around here.) Hungry Ear opened in 1980, though they’ve changed ownership and locations since then. Fortunately, they’ve never wavered from their original mission: to cultivate a community of music-lovers who understand that it’s just as important to have reverence for the past, as it is to have your eyes on the future.
Hungry Ear’s original location was a small storefront in the little windward town of Kailua. It was a nice shop, though a bit out of the way for anyone who doesn’t live on that side of the island (which is most of us.) They’ve since moved into a more modern space in the trendy Honolulu neighborhood of Kaka’ako. Hungry Ear Records is now surrounded by hip restaurants, even hipper microbreweries (yes, they’re everywhere) and colorful wall murals as far as the eye can see. Kaka’ako is kind of like Honolulu’s version of Brooklyn: artsy, bustling with new businesses and completely absent of native New Yorkers. Having visited Hungry Ear’s original location, as well as the current one, I would say they have absolutely “grown up” in terms of retail space. Thankfully, they’ve maintained the soul and welcoming vibe of the original store.
They don’t have a big sign outside, because they don’t need one. This is a small island, and word of mouth spreads like wildfire. When this location opened, it took no time at all for the community to get word. The front door has a small sign hanging in the window that says “We are definitely open. Please come as you are.” That’s a perfect expression of Hungry Ear’s philosophy. No matter your age, your background or your musical taste, you belong here.
The second floor space is open and modern. Spanning the entire far wall is a huge black and white wall-covering of the Beatles. It’s a long room with row upon row of vinyl. They have a respectable collection of new records on the wall when you walk in, but the remaining space is mostly filled with a substantial collection of used vinyl. Hungry Ear isn’t trying to break any new ground with the layout. It does the job. Where they shine is in their connection with their customers. Every time I’ve been in any of their locations, the person working there is always enthusiastic and helpful. It’s not the kind of insincere eagerness you might get at The Apple Store. It’s a real interest in what you’re looking for. That’s one of the things that makes Hungry Ear so special. It’s not a store. It’s more like a gathering place and a social club. They’ve always seen themselves as such, and continue to carry on that legacy.
One of the other effective ways they maintain that connection is through their numerous events throughout the year. Since 2012, Hungry Ear has run the Hawaii Record Fair, which brings people from all over the state to buy, sell, and trade their vinyl wares. In addition to this flagship event, they hold smaller ones regularly, like their Vinyl Record Swap Meet, Record Store Day event and the oh-so-local Uke Social (that’s short for ukulele, in case you didn’t get it.)
Being involved in the Hawaiian music community has always been important to Hungry Ear. Many of the most fervent collectors found browsing their racks on any given day are fans of classic Hawaiian music. They’re the kind of albums that aren’t easily found online because they were only intended for local consumption. Therefore, somebody’s auntie has to pass away and have her old record collection donated for them to be available on the market again. It’s like the Hawaiian auntie version of the Disney Vault. Hungry Ear is a vital part of that pipeline, and they take it seriously.
That’s why they have the respect of such a broad spectrum of people here. They are just as interested in talking about obscure 1970s Hawaiian comedy albums as they are the new Calvin Harris release. Everyone has a place here, so if you ever make it to paradise for a visit, stop in and check out Hungry Ear Records. They’re definitely open. Just come as you are.