Story by Lynn Cook
Photo by Olivier Koning
Hungry Ear is a bit like the La Brea Tar Pits: Keep digging and you’ll find dinosaurs. The corner store in the center of O‘ahu’s Kailua town is the oldest record store in Hawai‘i, a place where people come in search of vintage music to match their memories. Enter the customer who says, “I’m looking for a record. It was a man, maybe a woman singing. It had ‘love’ in the title.” The search begins when store owners Dennie Chong and Ward Yamashita, both detectives with an encyclopedic knowledge of music, ask, “What year? Where were you? Local band or rock stars?” The store dates back to 1980; Dennie and Ward’s friendship, to 1984; the recordings, to the ’60s.
Denny Chong (left) and Ward Yamashita
Walls of the tiny space are covered with vintage LPs, racks packed with CDs, bins of 45s. People still listen to those? “On weekends,” says Dennie, “dads come in to show their kids what a turntable looks like, so the kids get that music isn’t only from iTunes.” And with vinyl making a comeback, good turntables are becoming a hot item again.
In the age of digital music, it’s amazing that record stores like this still exist, much less make any money. Like the characters in the novel High Fidelity, who wander into a music store to hang out and never leave, Dennie says “the Ear” has long been his second home. Former owner Luke Yamashiro was a pal and a father figure, giving the teens a music education and eventually a job. Ward went on to work in Hawai‘i’s music stores, and Dennie headed to the Seattle music scene. When they heard the Ear was for sale, they made an offer, thus preserving the store in an age when behemoths like Tower Records have long been extinct.
With an ear for what’s out of print and in demand, Dennie and Ward look for good-condition vintage, saying that the value of the albums “you just couldn’t put in the dumpster” depends on supply and demand. Hawai‘i customers listen their way back to the “good old days” of Mackey Feary, Kalapana, Kevin I and C&K. In the pop genre, one shopper was amazed to learn there was an album version of obscure, 45 B-side Beatles songs, including “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number).”