Meet Skull-Face, Honolulu’s Newest Indie Bookstore
We explored the shop’s deep, dark, nerdy and weird books and music. And now, we’re obsessed.
Bookstores have always held a special place in my heart. As a kid growing up in Honolulu, no weekend was complete without a trip to Waldenbooks at Kāhala Mall, Rainbow Books on University or the old-school Jelly’s, where I could get lost in the stacks reuniting with favorite characters and discovering new worlds.
So, I was thrilled to learn about Skull-Face, the new indie bookstore that recently opened Downtown. You may already be familiar with its owners, husband-and-wife duo Josh Spencer and Jenna Hipp Spencer, from their other businesses The Last Bookstore and Lost Books in LA.
What you may not know, is that while their California shops cater to a broad audience, Spencer decided that if he was going to open a bookstore back in his home state (he grew up as a surfer-skater kid in Hawai‘i Kai), it might as well be a true reflection of his own unique tastes, as niche as they may be.
Here’s what to expect…
Strolling toward the entrance on the mauka end of Bethel Street, Skull-Face’s window displays are the first hints that this isn’t your average bookstore. A skeleton floats midair, caught in the beam of the flying saucer above it, while aliens clad in gold lamé mingle with earthlings in trippy beach scenes.
The choice of location happened naturally. While home visiting friends and family, the couple spent some time in Downtown-Chinatown and found themselves falling for the neighborhood’s somewhat gritty-but-authentic vibe and strong sense of community. “It just feels real and organic. It has history behind it and kind of a rough edge to it, which goes well with our personalities and what we like. There’s a lot of cool people down here—we were talking to the other shop owners and it seemed like everybody knew each other and was looking out for each other,” explains Spencer.
Inside, hanging from the ceiling are rows of woven tapestries, featuring mythological creatures and, of course, more skeletons. Dark concrete floors contribute to the moody vibe, and the walls are plastered with retro movie posters, flyers for punk shows and surf contests, black-and-white photos, comic strips and more. “I wanted it to be overstimulation with a maximalist feel to it. I covered the walls with things that meant something to me—shows I’d watch, movies I love, bands that I liked,” says Spencer. “I also wanted to make it feel like somebody’s bedroom in a way and cover it with posters and artwork, and have these really cool blankets. I wanted it to feel like home to people that are into this stuff.”
As he did for his son’s other bookstores, Spencer’s father built all of Skull-Face’s wood bookshelves. Wavy, windy and painted an inky black, they carve a labyrinthine path through the store. “We’d like people to explore and wander around. There’s something new around every corner. That’s the way books are—when you’re reading, you don’t know where it’s gonna take you. A bookstore should mimic that too,” says Spencer.
Each and every book in the shop is hand-picked by Spencer. “There seemed to be a void on the island for the kinds of things that I personally love—darker, weirder, more action-oriented stuff, everything from punk rock to ancient Roman and Greek history to science fiction,” he says. “It’s kind of a mash-up of nerdy stuff and really hip stuff.”
Instead of run-of-the-mill category names, you’ll find fashion and tattoo books filed under “Art on Bodies.” Viking mythology falls under “Gods and Monsters and Heroes and Legends,” while science fiction and fantasy favorites, such as Dune and Sarah J. Maas’ fairy series, can be found in the “Swords, Magic, Lasers and Spaceships!” section. The shop also boasts a large Tolkien selection, including its most expensive item, a $250 red leather-bound copy of The Lord of the Rings filled with the author’s hand-drawn illustrations.
The rest of the shelves feature a multitude of topics, from poetry and photography to military history, true crime and architecture. A large swath of books at the back of the shop labeled “The Best Books Ever” consists of classic literature from authors such as Jane Austen, Dostoevsky and Edgar Allan Poe. Foodie culture and pop culture merge in cookbooks inspired by the Harry Potter and Studio Ghibli films. And you’ll find a throwback from Spencer’s teen years, Frank Miller’s Daredevil, among the graphic novels. There’s even a row of keiki books, starring adorable ghosts and magical monsters.
The Music & Movies
Skull-Face also boasts an extensive vinyl selection. After moving to North Carolina as a teenager, Spencer fell in love with punk and metal, so you’ll find Bikini Kill, NOFX, Sublime and Bad Religion alongside the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. ’90s grunge and alternative rock make an appearance. “We even have reggae, some funk, blues and jazz,” he says. “All of those things in my mind have been outsider music. We pretty much have every genre of music except for pop and dance.”
There’s a used DVD section built around the same genres as the books—horror, sci-fi, action and anime, plus surf, snow and music documentaries. And in the last few weeks of each month, the shop will buy and trade DVDs, along with records and along with books.
All of this combines to create a richness of experience that the Amazons of the world simply can’t duplicate. And while some may think it risky to eschew the mainstream for the offbeat, Skull-Face bookstore is already finding its people, so to speak. “Since day one, everybody that comes in is like, how did you know? We needed this! How do you carry all these books that we like? Everybody seems super-stoked and really appreciative. I was surprised because I didn’t know if anybody else liked the kind of stuff I like too, but it seems like there’s a large amount of people that do.”
Open Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. -10 p.m.; Closed on Sunday and Monday; Skull-Face Bookstore, 1148 Bethel St.,@skullfacehawaii
SEE ALSO: 50 Essential Hawai‘i Books You Should Read in Your Lifetime