PAIA >> It’s 10 a.m. on an already warm Sunday morning and cafes throughout this seaside hamlet buzz with friendly conversation. The surf shops, chic boutiques and art galleries are just opening up and the daily tide of tourists has yet to wash over the dusty sidewalks lightly stained with red dirt from the surrounding cane fields.
At Paia Bay Coffee, the atmosphere and attire are loose and casual at the dozen or so outdoor tables set up under trees behind the Puka Puka gallery on Hana Highway, a quick five-minute drive from Kahului Airport.
Among those dropping by for a morning cup is Martin Brass, on his way back from a 50-mile roundtrip bicycle ride to remote Kahakuloa on Maui’s northwestern tip.
Brass is president of the Paia Town Association and a partner in one of the town’s most popular restaurants, Flatbread Co., which opened in 2006. Like many residents, Brass was first drawn to Maui by world-class windsurfing sites such as Hookipa and Kanaha, located on either side of Paia.
"People come here from all over the world. It’s not just for shopping, it’s a lifestyle. That’s the charm," he said.
Visitors won’t find major national chain stores or fast-food restaurants in the one-stoplight town center, which runs for two blocks along Hana Highway and up Baldwin Avenue. About the closest thing to such establishments are two service stations and the Minit Stop convenience store known for its tasty fried chicken and potato wedges.
In the past two to three decades, as the last general stores were boarded up or torn down, an eclectic mix of about 65 locally owned businesses has come to occupy the plantation-era storefronts. The shops include Mandala Ethnic Arts, which sells Buddha carvings, flowy silk garments and sustainable Balinese hardwood homebuilding kits; and Maui Girl & Co., where a banner celebrates the 2013 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition cover that features supermodel Kate Upton in one of the store’s skimpy bikinis. (Rose Potter, executive director of the Paia Town Association, likes to joke there are more bikini stores per capita in Paia than anywhere else.)
The area also offers hair salons, two tattoo parlors, offices for accountants, dentists, chiropractors and lawyers, and real estate agencies peddling high-end properties.
|483: Owner-occupied housing units
371: Housing units with a mortgage
112: Housing units without a mortgage
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
Moonbow Tropics co-owner Greg Jay and his entire extended family of grandparents, parents and siblings moved to Maui from Palm Desert, Calif., 20 years ago and opened the store, which sells Reyn Spooner shirts and similar apparel, in 1995. The family runs a second shop, Moonbow Cabana, in Paia and a third on Front Street in Lahaina.
Jay, 42, who enjoys hiking and bodysurfing, prefers working in Paia. "It’s more laid-back. It’s who I am," he said.
He remembers when the town’s reputation wasn’t so welcoming. In the late 1980s and ’90s, when Paia was sputtering through the last days of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.’s Paia Mill, drugs and crime were chief concerns.
"People aren’t scared to come to Paia anymore. It’s been cool to see the changes," said Jay.
At Mana Foods on Baldwin Avenue, a surfing etiquette poster is displayed inside the entrance and fliers pinned to a bulletin board advertise workshops on "Ancient Alchemy" healing and hot yoga.
The health-food market, in business for 30 years, is one of Paia’s anchors.
"When we opened I used to sit on the bench outside the store and a car might drive by every five minutes. There was nothing going on in Paia," said Theresa Thielk, 51, who runs the market with several family members.
By the late 1930s, Paia boasted 6,500 residents, making it one of the island’s major population centers. As Maui’s economy became less dependent on sugar, residents dispersed to new jobs and homes in Central Maui and resort areas in Lahaina and Kihei. The 2010 Census counted 2,700 people living in Paia.
The town took on a funkier vibe as the flower children of the ’60s arrived. Then in the late 1970s, Hookipa was dubbed "the windsurfing capital of the world."
"A bunch of windsurfers came to the North Shore and they were into healthy lifestyles and healthy eating, but they partied like animals," laughed Thielk.
The surf crowd and aging hippies soon were joined by an influx of Europeans, New Agers and what Brass likes to call "trustafarians," wealthy newcomers seeking a simpler lifestyle. Paia’s rebirth was helped along by a proliferation of major windsurfing contests, vacation rentals and small housing developments in Paia and Haiku.
By the time the sugar mill was mothballed in 2000, the town — once just an optional stop on the way to Hana — had almost completed its evolution into a hip yet unpretentious dining, shopping and ocean-sport hot spot with international allure.
Most of the shops still close at 6 p.m., but locals and visitors flock to Paia’s diverse eateries into the evening. The landmark Charley’s Restaurant and Saloon, around since 1969, hosts part-time Maui resident Willie Nelson for occasional gigs. Next door, construction has started on a 3,585-square-foot Rock & Brews restaurant and bar, part of a national chain with Gene Simmons of the rock band Kiss as a frontman.
Local investors worked with county officials to ensure the establishment will fit in with the town’s plantation-era architecture, but the Paia Town Association ihas raised concerns about the permitting process, saying it did not allow for adequate public input. Several residents have joined with the Maui Tomorrow Foundation and Wailuku attorney Isaac Hall — best known as prominent Hawaii Superferry foes — to contest the permits.
Brass, whose own restaurant is part of the Massachusetts-based Flatbread Co. chain that has about a dozen outlets in Martha’s Vineyard and other small towns, said the conflict is not about tamping down competition. He’s seen what has happened in other beach towns across the country where property values escalated, squeezing out local businesses that could no longer afford rising rents and leaving landlords no option but to lease to corporate chains with deep pockets.
"I don’t think the Paia community realizes how much is coming down the pike," Brass said. "It’s one thing to look at this and think what’s the big deal, it’s just one restaurant, but the bigger concern is if the process is mitigated to allow that to take place, how do you protect yourself from the next one?
"People come to Paia because it is what it is today. To lose that quality by adding stores that you can find elsewhere, what’s the point? We just become average."
Potter, of the Paia Town Association, noted there are nine separate projects in various stages of development planned for Paia, including one that would double the amount of lease space in town.
Thielk, of Mana Foods, is optimistic Paia will endure as a unique "step back in time."
"There’s definitely way more traffic, way more people — just way more. But I think it’s maintained its character. All the original buildings are here and the quaint shops with things you can’t find anywhere else," she said.
As for Rock & Brews, Thielk said she hopesthe new bar will enliven Paia’s nightlife.
"It might be a great thing where people can go to dance," she said.
CORRECTION: The Paia Town Association did not join with the Maui Tomorrow Foundation and Wailuku attorney Issac Hall to contest the permitting process for a new restaurant and bar in Paia. An earlier version of this story and the story in the print edition suggested it did.