Aloha Comes Natural

Midtown shop owner never loses style

By R.E. Graswich

May 2019

Lauren Lundsten, called Lonnie by his friends, can explain why a $188 Hawaiian shirt is worth every penny.

“The design is from the Kahala company archives. Look at the rich colors. The printing is done in Kyoto on special rayon filament from a Japanese company that’s been making this fabric since the 1950s,” he says. “The tailoring is done in Hawaii. It’s engineered so the pattern lines up perfectly when you button it. You can’t even see the threads.” Lundsten has only a few special-edition shirts, and will let one go for $150, a steal.

Nobody in Sacramento can sell Hawaiian culture better than Lundsten. He has been providing customers with shirts, hats, sandals, books, music and Tiki mugs for 23 years at his island-style boutique Swanberg’s on J near 24th Street, and an earlier shop in Curtis Park. He has withstood relentless economic assaults, including the Great Recession, internet, Amazon and the city’s J Street bike-lane installation that barricaded his business for weeks and cost $5,000 in sales.

Today, as he savors the onset of another summer, the perfect season for a Hawaiian shirt merchant, Lundsten is thinking about sunsets. “I’ve been doing this a long time,” he says. “The store is going pretty good. I’d like to work another two years, and sell it to someone. That would give me 25 years, which is something I’d be proud of when I retire.”

Swanberg’s is a rarity among Sacramento landmarks—a retail fulfillment of one man’s dream that evolved into a viable business. Lonnie’s style is relaxed, humble and soft-spoken, which exactly describes his shop.

 

He sells Hawaiian shirts because he likes them. He also likes baseball. Prominent among the racks are vintage baseball hats and Major League Baseball team logo Hawaiian shirts designed by the legendary Honolulu firm Reyn Spooner. The marriage of baseball and aloha hits a grand slam at Swanberg’s.

“The Hawaiian baseball shirts are really popular,” Lundsten says. “Reyn does new editions each year for the Giants, Dodgers, Angels, Yankees and Cubs. There’s a new shirt for the A’s this year.”

Lundsten is no slave to fashion. Nothing goes out of style at Swanberg’s. Even now, his bestseller is the Tom Selleck “Magnum P.I.” Jungle Bird Red shirt by Paradise Found, a relic from the 1980s. It’s always in stock. Hairy chests are not required for purchase. And the store’s back wall is a jungle of vintage joy, with more than 400 secondhand Hawaiian shirts that sell for a fraction of their original price.

“A lot of restaurant and bar people come in and buy those,” Lundsten says. “If they get them messed up on the job, it’s OK, they’re not worth too much.”

Each time he makes a sale, Lundsten turns to his ultimate old-school device—a towering 1970s manual cash register liberated from a concession stand at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. He bought the machine for $100 at a West Sacramento warehouse. It carries a sticker from the concessionaire Harry M. Stevens as proof of provenance.
“I had a modern cash register, but it broke,” Lundsten says. “This one never breaks.”

As he gazes toward retirement and waits for someone to buy his shop, Lundsten can consider himself an honorable merchant in Midtown’s evolving retail narrative. He doesn’t have a website—too much trouble. He pays a homeless guy to keep the storefront clean. Lundsten was hip before the town became hip, and he never noticed.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at reg@graswich.com.

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