KOHALA COAST — Seven generations of island roots, cultural connections and aloha have transformed a long-time retail space in The Shops at Mauna Lani into an experience that’s much more than simply lovely gifts and treasures.
To celebrate a family heritage that bridges Hawaii’s multicultural diversity, Waimea resident Joeliene Schutte and her husband, Guy, held a grand re-opening of The Fine Hawaiian Gift Gallery in December that has been in the works for many years — in fact, seven generations. That’s how far back the Schutte-Kaiawe-Kaleohano family traces its roots on this island, and these ties and knowledge inspired “re-invention” of the gift gallery over recent months.
This is not a typical Hawaiian gift shop, evident from the moment you walk in the door. To begin with, Schutte wears her heart for all things Hawaii and Hawaiian on her sleeve. She and her staff — and daughter, Kanoe, who is the store manager — are quick to welcome customers and eager to share Hawaii’s stories.
Their “business plan” is to create an experience for customers that reveals more than just pretty treasures, clothing, jewelry, soaps, art and functional objects. Most often it’s an opportunity to learn about deeper layers of meaning — of the kaona — of Hawaii. It’s also about quality and affordability – items that are well crafted yet reasonably priced.
With 90 percent of the store’s inventory made in Hawaii and the remainder Hawaii-inspired, the shop is eclectic. There are exquisite kahelelani shell necklaces and earrings that inevitably lead to conversations about the still very private Hawaiian island of Niihau, almost the only place on earth these tiny shells are still found.
Hanging nearby are a collection of beautifully sewn carry-alls, including a clever new “manapua bag” — designed specifically an interisland carry-on to transport the local version of Chinese steamed buns filled with seasoned pork. Sharing favorite local foods with family and friends is a custom, and finding something so practical makes it an “insider’s gift.”
But Schutte and her staff are quick to explain the nuances, such as why turtles and whales are so significant culturally, as well as the more obvious affection most people have for them. The stories shared are often as much about the artist or crafter who created them — what inspires them, the rigor required and precautions taken.
“We’re here for the long haul — born here, raised here, not going anywhere and we want to provide customers with a memorable experience with a touch of aloha,” Schutte said. “We don’t have to make a killing on every item we sell. We offer a wide range of items and prices to try to have something that suits a wide array of people, ages and needs.”
For those familiar with the shop in its former life, it still includes Hawaii’s first and only 4D theatre with a 19-foot screen and synchronized full-range motion seats, surround sound and in-theater 4D effects — blown air and water spray — for a multi-sensory experience. It has a wide array of rides that run from 5-12 minutes, ranging from a ride on a traditional 4-man Hawaiian outrigger canoe to an ocean adventure swimming with whales, honu, sharks and naia (dolphins). There are also rides that take guests on a safari, through a haunted forest and on an ice sled in Antarctica in search of penguins.
The blending of a very Hawaiian gift gallery with a 4D theatre has its advantages: it provides something for all ages, often keeping keiki occupied while the adults shop and enjoy talking story with sales staff.
Taking over ownership of The Fine Hawaiian Gift Gallery wasn’t really “the grand plan” for Schutte, but as a hard-working young mother of three she has seen a need and filled it over and over. She ran a licensed in-home childcare service for 16 years, sewed children’s clothing, wedding gowns and prom dresses as a business, and ran a catering service specializing in extravagant exhibits of fresh fruits.
Schutte’s knowledge of island crafts and traditions reaches back to her childhood, growing up in South Kona where she spent many long hours at her great uncle’s popular retail shop — Joe’s Village Flowers and Gifts — in Kainaliu. There, she learned about closing her eyes and running her fingers across koa platters and umeke (bowls). To this day, it’s her fingers that judge the quality of the finished work as much as her eyes.
The time Schutte spent in his shop also taught her a lot about making customers feel welcome and excited about what they were seeing and experiencing. Now, decades later, she’s practicing what she learned from her grandmother and extended family.
The shop is a family affair, from shared ownership with Guy, known as a busy Waimea rancher, and their two older daughters, Kanoe and Nasaiya.
The Fine Hawaiian Gift Gallery is open 10 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. Info: Go to www.FineHawaiian.com or call 885-8800.