Making History

Enter Robert Bosley’s Kaka‘ako warehouse and be transported to many moments in time.


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1970 ShelbY Cobra Mustang and 1931 packard limo sit spotless and pristine, neXt to a 1979 El Camino. car buffs would instantly regard the first two as spectacular automobiles, but the El Camino is an awkward cross between a pickup truck and sports car that some automobile scholars hold in poor regard. But, the owner has two of El Caminos. The 1979 is parked next to a 1959.

“There is no rhyme or reason in this place,” says owner Robert Bosley.

The building that houses the collection is a bit of a contradiction, too. sandwiched between auto body shops in a still-industrial part of kaka‘ako, Robert’s warehouse was once a foundry that made manhole covers and brass plaques for the city. The original cupola furnace sits proudly in a corner and the rail crane that was used to move the molten metal to the molds is still functional. When Robert took ownership in 1997, it was an artist’s loft, but the iron-working tools were still there. They are displayed proudly in the nook beside the furnace with pictures of the foundry in action.

But the collection, I see, is not just iron and vintage sheet metal, but a range of antiques that aren’t strewn about collecting dust. Robert has everything arranged and glossy and often marked with neat placards. I’m thinking there is a rhyme and a lot of reason to this wide-ranging collection of Americana.

Mr. Bosley’s collection, in many ways, started in 1967, when he moved to Honolulu to start Diamond Head Sprinkler. “I’d keep leftover supplies in a warehouse until I realized I had a collection of irrigation parts no one else had. By the ’90s, I stopped doing installations.” He started a total of four stores in Hawai‘i, three on O‘ahu and one in Hilo. and yes, every one of is stores had an antique or two tucked in with the inventory.

Robert sold Diamond Head Sprinkler three years ago, but it was indeed the place to go for hard-to-find irrigation supplies. It represented a business model different from big box stores. In corporate retail, excess inventory is a liability, so if it doesn’t sell, it has to go. For Robert, if a quality item wasn’t selling well, he would keep it on the shelf. “Someone would come in looking for it, not able to find it online,” Robert tells me. “They’d be happy to pay the markup because they appreciated finding it.”

In that way, his collection is like his former business; he finds and keeps what works for him. He doesn’t seem to care about the collectability or what it could fetch at auction. The neon signs are modern reproductions, but the coca-cola signs are spot-on vintage. he has an array of model hallmark cars (meh) housed in a display case from the 1880s (wow!). He has three sets of model trains that probably aren’t notable to a collector, but all three run on concentric tracks suspended from the ceiling that took a year of careful engineering on Robert’s part to construct. Mildly valuable curios share shelf space with the exceedingly rare. But hell, everything looks great.

And Robert doesn’t seem to stop when he finds one pop relic. For example, most collectors would stop with one authentic jukebox that reminds them of their teen years. Robert has two wurlitzer jukeboxes, both functional and shiny. The warehouse is dotted with gas pumps from each of the first five decades of the last century. And, remember, he has two El Caminos.

Still, Robert has crafted a focus on context. Witness the copper mailbox that was saved from the old Alexander Young Hotel that was Robert Bosley’s collection of vintage trinkets and memorabilia ranges from jukeboxes and neon signs to toy cars and Chevrolet El Caminos that he’s collected over the past 50 years. Demolished in 1981. on either side are vintage photographs of the hotel and the hotel lobby where the mailbox was affixed for almost 80 years. You also get surprises you get when you aren’t expecting it, like an amazingly complex tricycle from 1910 suspended from the ceiling.

The vision for his warehouse is to use it as an exclusive event space for smaller gatherings. Robert is still building his collection the way he always has; thrift stores, antique shops and gifts from friends. He often restores his findings himself or with his wife, Teri.

Teri and Robert, it turns out, are champion ballroom dancers. The upstairs loft served as their private practice studio after hours. He gives me a quick lesson in ballroom, still quick on his feet in his seventies. “You can tell a good dancer by his center,” he says, squaring his hips towards me. “It took me a year just to learn the basics.” I shrug it off, not sure how dancing relates to method of his collection.

I have to ask him what his favorite piece is. He shows me a uniform from world war ii. Next to it is a picture of a handsome soldier in the same uniform and a shy little kid. That shy kid is Robert and the soldier is his father, Owen Bosley, who passed a few years back. With this and the dance lesson it all makes sense. This eclectic collection finds the center of things of value, not only from Robert’s life, but also from his father’s.

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