Images by John Hook

“Everybody that comes into the store will look up almost immediately and see all the kites on the ceiling,” says Jonathan Socher, who started making kites on Moloka‘i in 1980. “I won’t say everyone, but there’s a good number of people who will flash back to their childhood and say, ‘Wow, my dad and I made a kite when I was 8 years old and we put so much string on it. We never did get it back.’”

The kite-maker himself is 73, with a white beard and a voice only slightly more brisk than you’d expect from his picture on the Big Wind Kite Factory website, in which he’s a smiling figure holding a parasol and wearing, as he calls it, “a silly hat” from his travels to Thailand. Behind him in the photo, his wife Daphne, smiling as well, looks out from the doorway of the shop, the rainbow-colored tail of a windsock blowing in front of her. “Here we are, at the end of the world, on the slowest island,” says Socher, “and we’ve been doing this for 30 years now.”

He and Daphne met at an ashram in India in 1971, traveled the world, briefly lived in Los Angeles, then moved to Maunaloa on Moloka‘i in 1976. “A friend of mine was living in town when we decided to move. There was a pineapple plantation house for rent for $95 a month. So we moved out, sight unseen.” To get by after the move, they tried dozens of different crafts, ideas, wholesale products. “Then we ran across someone with a kite shop in Waikīkī, and we said, ‘Why not try selling kites on the beach in front of the Sheraton?’”

Socher goes on, “I hadn’t flown a kite for maybe 10 or 15 years, since I was in India or Afghanistan. I used to fly kites a lot there back in the ’70s.” But they gave it a go, using Daphne’s designs for decoration, colorful Nylon to catch the eye, and trial and error: “Make a kite,” he says. “Then see if it flies.”

At the time, Maunaloa was home to a small tourism boom, complete with a Sheraton hotel that has since shut down and a pineapple plantation that was starting to flee the scene (as he puts it, “to places with slave labor and cheap land and water”).

But it turns out that selling kites on the beach, and now from their store, has kept them going even after the restaurants, gas stations and other plantation homes were boarded up. Now, tourists travel 20 miles to check out the town and shop. Today, the couple’s plantation rental from 1976 is the location of the Big Wind Kite Factory and Plantation Gallery, which Jonathan estimates sees about 40 or 50 tourists every day.

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“We also have an aeronautical testing facility next door where people have free trials for their kites. It’s spelled P-A-R-K.” (This is one of his many industry-related jokes, along with “I don’t mean to string you along.”) Here, children from the town also come to learn to make kites and test their creations.

Jonathan was asked soon after setting up shop to come to the elementary school and teach the kids how to make kites by a local teacher who walked in to the room adorned with brightly colored kites. “I realized that was the script,” he said. “You can’t open kite shop and say, ‘Screw the kids.’”

Sometimes, people’s memories aren’t so positive when they see the kite collection, recollecting lost kites or failed, windless days. So, for both the kids and visitors, Jonathan says, “We make sure that first kite always flies.”

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Big Wind Kites is located at 120 Mauna Loa Highway, west of Moloka‘i Airport. For more information, visit bigwindkites.com.