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Buying Hawaii: How about 4,000 aloha shirts?

June 22, 2012|By Christopher Reynolds
  • Ventura shopkeeper Bruce King is looking to change jobs and sell his inventory -- about 4,000 Hawaiian shirts.
Ventura shopkeeper Bruce King is looking to change jobs and sell his inventory… (Christopher Reynolds/Los…)

Too bad you can’t afford to buy the Hawaiian island of Lanai, as the Maui News and many others say tech billionaire Larry Ellison is doing.

But what if you had 4,000 Aloha shirts? Would you even need to visit the islands?

If you had 4,000 Aloha shirts, maybe, in a way, you’d be there already. In bleak cubicle moments, you’d glance at the happy floral pattern draped from your shoulder, or finger the sturdy fabric and genuine island stitching at the point of your hip.

Maybe, if you had 4,000 Aloha shirts, you’d proudly don another each day for a decade, and still have 350 shirts to spare. Or you could flee the cubicle, set up a shirt shop and become an Aloha broker.

Now meet Bruce King, age 60, height 6-foot-3, shirt tropical. He has 4,000 Aloha shirts (and some dresses), from pre-worn vintage '40s artifacts to never-worn modern marvels, from toddler sizes to 8X. And he 's looking for a buyer who wants them all.

Drop by his tiny shop in Ventura (The Hawaiian Shirt Shoppe, 40 S. California St.) and the jolly, bearded King can tell you tales of his youth in Oxnard, surfing as a kid, and the power of Hawaiian imagery. He bought his first Hawaiian shirts as a teenager, then more. Worked and surfed in the islands for a little while. Returned to the mainland. Bought more shirts. And then still more.

Some of the early shirts from the '40s are worth thousands. Hundreds date to the golden age of Aloha shirts in the '50s, “when the colors became just eye-popping.” Hundreds more date to the '60s, when more muted reverse-prints came into style. (The priciest is a $5,000 shirt from the late '50s, with an abstract Asian pattern and metal buttons stamped with little images of King Kamehameha.)

Before he gets around to telling you the total price for the whole batch, King might also tell you about taking ballet as a kid to strengthen his footwork on the waves, then taking more, then more, then realizing that he wouldn’t be a pro surfer but might make a pro dancer. He can tell about the years he danced, the years since then of teaching and collecting still more shirts.

In 2010, after decades of aloha accumulation, King went pro, opened the shop, and outfitted it with four old longboards and a gleaming 1961 British-made Morris Minor “Woody” wagon, which he parks right out front.  

Chatting up customers, he explains how in California, we call them Hawaiian shirts. But on the islands, they’re aloha shirts. And it’s the shirts made on the islands, says King, that give you the best fabric, best stitching, best buttons. Most of his shirts are island-made. Even now, with his own inventory for sale, when he sees 200 well-made shirts for sale at the right price, he can’t help himself. He buys.

The idea of the islands is a powerful attraction -- sometimes more powerful than the reality. King hasn’t actually been to the islands since 1970. He’s afraid they won’t live up to the way he remembers them. (Just wait until somebody tells him what's happened to in-flight service these last few years.)

But you’re still waiting to hear the price.

It’s $90,000. That’s $22.50 per shirt.

And yes, it’s more than your wallet holds at the moment. But my guess is it’s substantially less than what Ellison, the chief executive of Oracle Corp, will be laying out for 98% of Lanai, which includes two Four Seasons resorts, two championship golf courses and 50 miles of coastline. (The seller is Castle & Cooke, a company owned by David Murdock.)

Given the state of the economy in recent years, Murdock may have been a seriously motivated seller. And King is too. The shop can be exhausting, he confesses, and he has said yes to a teaching opportunity in Sacramento. He has a “for sale” sign in his shop window. For him, it’s time to let go of the aloha.

But for you, King has a modest proposal. The wagon and the longboards alone are probably worth $40,000, he says, but let’s make it easy -- $90,000 for everything: the shirts, the boards, the Woody, the glorious idea of tropical paradise. And none of those pesky island upkeep costs that Larry Ellison will soon be learning about.

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