Preserving Paper Paradise

Hawai‘i’s ephemera find new life at Tin Can Mailman

Text by Brad Dell  ||  Images by Maxfield Terrell Smith

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Imagine you’re disembarking from a Pan Am flight in the 1960s. You’re greeted by coconut bra-wearing hula dancers who drape lei over your aloha-print shoulders. One of them hands you a mai tai in a tiki-shaped mug. In the distance, Diamond Head overlooks waves rolling onto the sand-covered doorsteps of hotels standing a few stories tall. Paradise.

Step into Tin Can Mailman, and you’ll find relics of this romanticized scene. Owner Christopher Oswalt specializes in Hawaiiana antiques, specifically those from mid-century. The shop has things you find in thrift shops, like vintage aloha shirts; in rare bookstores, like a Chinese language history of Hawai‘i; and in 1950s trashcans, like bottle caps, fruit can labels, newspaper advertisements.

“I deal specifically in paper and ephemera—things that aren’t meant to be saved,” Oswalt says, a map in hand. “We are the best store on the island for that.” The map Oswalt gingerly holds is a colorful depiction of the Hawaiian Islands, with icons painted in to represent landmarks that tourists visiting several decades ago would have been interested in. If you look closely, you can see a miniature city painted on the map: Honolulu. Inside this city lies Chinatown, the location of the shop. 

Tin Can Mailman was a decades-old rare bookstore on Kaua‘i when Oswalt, who got his feet wet running spaces in California antique malls, bought the shop in 2009 and relocated it to Chinatown. Along the way, he made one important change: “Kaua‘i was a bookstore that had antiques,” he says. “Chinatown is an antique store that has books.”

Oswalt took his first step into the antiques world during his childhood in California, when he purchased an old pink ashtray for 95 cents. He moved on to buying antique pottery for several years. He was even occasional visitor to the original Tin Can Mailman on Kaua‘i, where his mother owns a condo. After earning a degree in personal property appraisal, he found himself in a shrinking career field and turned his attention to selling antiques instead of appraising them. He quickly became an expert on Hawaiiana memorabilia, like vintage posters and trinkets, at Tin Can Mailman. For Oswalt, this focus is business, not personal. “I don't collect Hawaiiana,” he says. “It would be like a drug dealer taking his own drugs. If I kept all the really cool stuff, there would be nothing to sell. I mostly collect things from the ’70s, photographs and gaudy gold things.”

Just as one of the self-proclaimed biggest dealers in Hawaiiana isn’t from Hawai‘i, neither are most of the items in his shop. “That goes for most antique stores in Hawai‘i,” Oswalt explains. “Hawai‘i didn't become a state until ’59 and didn’t get really populated until the ’70s, so the pool of antiques and collectables is very small to choose from. There’s a lot of history, but not a lot of ‘junk,’ here.” Oswalt is heartbroken as he speaks of the toll Hawai‘i’s environment has on antiques. “If I get a book about Hawai‘i, I wanna get it from a place like Arizona, where it’s dry, there are no bugs, no humidity. Whereas if the same book is from Hawai‘i, it had to live through all the humidity, all the bugs, all the storms.”

The map Oswalt holds is victim to this. He gently points out cracks and rips in the map that he is in the process of repairing. “It’s important to preserve the past to give you perspective on the present. We’re in such a throwaway culture now,” he says. “Your phone breaks, you throw it away. Back in the day, you glued or taped broken things and put it back on your shelf. It’s important to save history.”

@tincanmailman