A Novel Undertaking
For more than three decades, Novel-T World has been a staple at Ward Warehouse since owners Darrell and Stephanie Ching opened their eclectic T-shirt store in 1983.
T-shirts of all kinds—beer, vintage Hawai'i, comic book characters, rock 'n' roll, cartoon phenoms, UH sports, and cheeky sayings—have all graced the walls of the colorful and whimsical store over the past 34 years. As the business transitions from brick and mortar to online store with pop-up appearances following Ward Warehouses deconstruction, we caught up with Stephanie to reflect on the past and discuss their exciting plans for the future.
When did you open up Novel-T World?
My husband, Darrell, and I joined our partner, Jay Tyson, in 1983 to open Novel-T World. We opened in this very spot 34 years ago and were together with Jay for five years.
What was the original store like?
Our ex-partner was in the mini mall and he had the Bud Man Boutique—all beer-related products. When he gave that space up and came downstairs, he brought all that merchandise with him. All his connections were with beer companies, so we had a lot of beer shirts, steins, beer phones, and to this day there's still some of that around the shop. From there we met up with Local Motion—we still carry them to this day—and some old-time businesses like Cane Haul Road, doing local designs with food and lifestyle. We've had nostalgia Ts since the beginning, reflecting on places that are now closed. It pays tribute to them. There's quite a few T-shirt lines we've grown older with that have been around since the beginning. From there we started branching out to licensed things, Marvel, DC, anime, TokiDoki—what our customers are asking for.
Retail has treated you well. What's the secret to your success?
We had a real passion for it—trying to do the best we could with the T-shirt market, enjoying our customers, and our fellow merchants. It was always a pleasure to come into work. It never felt like work work. We try to provide good customer service, fulfill what they need in T-shirts, and that was our niche and still is. We try to keep to that—really enjoying what we do, doing it the best we can, treating our customers well, and offering a good-quality product and a fair price.
What's your all-time favorite merchandise from the store?
For me, I'm a really big fan of the TokiDoki line. It's really fun and colorful. It's anime-driven. I enjoy buying it for the store, wearing it myself, and a lot of the customers like the accessories they make, like the hats and the figures. Right now, that's my number-one favorite thing. Over the years, the biggest sellers have had to do with UH. We've carried UH since day one and are football season-ticket holders. Some of the best sellers were the Sugar Bowl shirts. We had a shirt that reflected when they went from last place to first place. These shirts broke all the records so we have a lot to thank UH for.
In the beginning, the Ghostbuster's T-shirt was a big deal with the red line through the ghost. We also bring in shirts connected with movies. As Marvel has made all these great movies, there have been great T-shirts with that. We always try to tie in with movies. Having the movie theaters across the street, the connection is there. They just saw the movie and want the shirt.
How about political shirts?
We've tried to not get too political, but of course, with Obama being from the islands, we did have Obama shirts and there was a lot of excitement about that.
What's the next step for Novel-T world?
Our last day at Ward Warehouse is July 31. We will stay to the end. We've cleared out a bedroom in our home to be a Novel-T World storage for our T-shirts, so it's easier to mail out and we don't have to drive to some storage center, to keep costs down. We're working on an online store, which will hopefully be live by September. It will most likely be Novel-T World Hawaii. The new digital store will offer all the best lines we have here. If people want a certain print, we can always get it for them. We've been keeping active on Facebook and Instagram so people can find us and let them know about our pop-up events—Blaisdell, craft fair, and New Wave Fridays at South Shore Market under T.J. Maxx, a second Friday pau hana event with vendors, craft booths, food trucks and music. We did New Wave in May and June and we really enjoyed the event. There was a lot of people, enjoying the food, music, and shopping. It was a lot of fun and we're looking forward to connecting with our customers through this event in the future.
What will you miss most about the Novel-T World brick and mortar store?
It's going to be the customers—seeing them, visiting with them, having that little extra time to talk story. That's not really duplicated on line, the human touch. When you do pop-ups, you have a limited time to talk to someone. It's a little different in the store, more of a relaxed atmosphere. The whole mall has a relaxed atmosphere. It's a special little mall. And we're definitely going to miss the fellow merchants, even the vendors. There are so many we've known for so long. Going mobile is going to be different. I'm from the generation where you go to the store, you touch and feel what you're going to buy, and talk to the people there. It's a different shopping experience now—you order online; it's convenient, and it's fast.
Looking back on 34 years, how does it feel to transition away from your store?
We've been very fortunate to have had a successful business for so many years. It's been exciting and we've seen so much change in the area over the past three decades. But I'm excited for the future of the area. Change is inevitable and I think the grand-vision for the neighborhood is really exciting. We've had a great run here in our space and we've had a great relationship with Ward Village. Despite moving out of our current location, we're looking forward to continuing our presence through our pop-up shop at South Shore Market, so make sure you come say hi and check out our shop at the next New Wave Friday.
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