By HUNTER BISHOP
Tribune-Herald staff writer
A retail store with a long history in downtown Hilo will be shutting its doors in December. Koehnen’s Interiors, in business for 83 years, has announced it will close on Dec. 15.
The family-owned business is operating under its third generation, but there aren’t enough family members left to operate it, said 88-year-old company president Fred. J. Koehnen.
“We’re closing now not because we have to, but because it’s an appropriate time.” he said Monday. “We ran out of family to take over.”
Koehnen’s has 13 tenants in the building fronting Kamehameha Avenue and in another building across “Koehnen’s Alley” behind the furniture store. Their tenants include the Hawaii Island Board of Realtors and the former Books, Nooks and Crannies, which sold new books and soon will be replaced by a used book store, Koehnen said.
All of the tenants will remain under their existing leases, and a new tenant will be sought to replace the furniture store, Koehnen said.
F. Koehnen Ltd. will remain an active business, with 100 percent of the family-owned company stock and real estate assets, Koehnen said. Only the retail furniture part of the business will close, he said.
Ten employees will have jobs through the end of the year and receive severance pay, he said.
The business formed when F.W. “Fritz” Koehnen, a German immigrant, bought the Hill Optical Co. from legendary Hilo businessman “Doc” Hill in 1929, renaming it F. Koehnen Ltd.
Fritz Koehnen, who’d been Hill’s bookkeeper, shut down the optical part of the business and started selling jewelry, silverware and high-end home furnishings, eventually becoming what some called the “Tiffany’s of Hilo.”
Fritz’s daughter Helie was a part of the business, starting in high school, and joined full time during World War II when she met and married the late Carl Rohner, a U.S. military officer stationed on the island who came back to join the business after the war.
Rohner opened the furniture business in 1946 as Fritz took ill with pneumonia. He handed over the reins to his son, Fred J. Koehnen, who left college after the war to take over the business.
Koehnen oversaw the jewelry and giftware division; Rohner oversaw furniture sales. After moving to the current location in 1955, which was purchased from Amfac, Fred left the day-to-day operations to Carl and Helie but remained on the firm’s board of directors.
Amfac had moved out following the 1946 tsunami. The Koehnen family rebuilt and renovated the structures, putting gifts and jewelry on the first floor and furniture on the second. The retail operations were spun off as its own entity, Koehnen’s Inc., in 1968.
Third generation Randy Rohner, Carl’s son, took over about 10 years ago following his father’s death, but Rohner started his own business, RR Interiors, while, Randy’s sister, Karyl Franks, has been operating the Hilo store as vice-president of the company. Now it’s time to put the retail venture to rest.
“It’s sad to see a landmark, anchor business, that’s so much a part of the history of downtown closing.,” said Christine Reed, co-owner of Basically Books, which sits on part of the original Koehnen’s location on Kamehameha Avenue and has been in business for 50 years itself in downtown Hilo. “We certainly don’t need another empty space downtown,” said her husband and co-owner David Reed, “but I’m sure they have plans.”
“They’ve really been supportive of all the downtown events” said Reed, “and were willing to work at preserving all aspects of downtown Hilo.”
“There are so many emotional ties,” said Karyl Franks, answering questions while seated next to her Uncle Fred in the furniture store’s conference room on Monday. “We really had a good run. People are very supportive.”
Franks’s mother, Heli Rohner, started working in the store while in her teens and, today at age 90, still shows up at the store several days a week. But the toll of closing is wearing heavily on her mother, Franks said, and she was not available for an interview. “My sister is the one who held it all together,” said Fred Koehnen. “It is very, very difficult for her, very emotional.”
Loyal, long-time customers were given an early opportunity to pick up bargains from the inventory of high-end home furnishings, and starting Oct. 15 there will be a run of advertised close-out sales open to the public until the store’s closing.
The family put the business and building up for sale five years ago but nothing came to fruition, Koehnen said. One problem with the building is its location in a tsunami inundation zone, which makes it difficult to secure bank loans. The 1960 tsunami “busted in the front doors and left three-and-a-half feet of standing water in the building,” Franks said.
The building was purchased from Amfac in 1955 after the Big Five company relocated and consolidated its headquarters following the 1946 tsunami.
Koehnen’s Interior stores opened twice in Kona, but each time they were closed due to economic downturns, most recently in 2009.
There are no regrets. “We have accomplished everything we set out to do through hard times and really great times,” said Franks. “We can be proud of what we have done.”
Long a tradition at Koehnen’s Interiors were its popular window displays in celebration of Christmas each year. “We’ll put in the window one last time this year,” said Franks, as her Uncle Fred, seated next to her, wiped tears from his eyes. “It’s our gift to the people of Hilo.”
“We’re a dinosaur in the space age,” Koehnen said, analyzing the economics. “A company this size is at a severe disadvantage. The in-between size business with employee health care and regulatory costs just eats you alive. We live in a difficult market for companies of this type.”
Email Hunter Bishop at firstname.lastname@example.org.