According to the Baker Book House company website, Christian indie bookstore Baker Book House and Baker Publishing Group have a history of only slowly warming up to technological innovations. For instance, the company’s manual typewriters were not replaced with electric typewriters until 1977, and its first desktop computer was purchased in 1987. It’s proud of a culture of austerity inspired by its founder’s frugal business practices, which once included providing each employee with only one pen at a time.
During the pandemic, however, as bookstore marketing manager Becca Niswonger put it, “virtual events have taught us that technology is a huge benefit to the store and its customers.” By quickly embracing social media platforms, Baker Book House, which claims to be the oldest and largest indie Christian bookstore in North America, has successfully raised its visibility far beyond its community in Grand Rapids, Mich.
The store was founded in 1939 by 28-year-old Herman Baker. Its homemade shelves were filled with 500 used religious books he had collected over the 14 years he’d lived in the U.S. after emigrating from the Netherlands with his parents. A year later, he became a publisher with the release of More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation by William Hendriksen, which is still in print.
The twin ventures grew steadily. In 1968 Baker opened a second bookstore in Holland, Mich., and in 1970 it opened a third in Benton Harbor. At one point the Baker family owned half a dozen bookstores, though all but the flagship location closed by the mid-’90s.
Today, executive v-p Sue Smith, assisted by a five-member management team, oversees the company’s retail operations and its 45 employees, 24 of whom are full-time; Smith reports to company CEO Dwight Baker. The 18,000-sq.-ft. store carries 140,000 new, used, and bargain books, and Baker Publishing Group publishes approximately 300 titles annually—all of which are available at the store.
The store’s inventory of 55,000 new and 85,000 used books includes fiction and nonfiction in a variety of genres for adults and children, as well as bibles and academic titles on religious subjects for, events coordinator Becky Suttner said, “seminary students and pastors” of all Christian denominations. It also sells music, gifts, and DVDs and has a café area.
“The variety is incredible,” Suttner said. “We have Christian content and we also have some books that are general market, if you will—books of interest to a Christian reader.”
While the store’s four book buyers focus on books published by Baker Publishing Group’s six imprints and other Christian publishers, approximately 10% of the inventory is broader in scope, such as The Natural Medicine Handbook by Walt Larimore, a current bestseller for the store.
Store events are free, Suttner noted, explaining that the five-member marketing team begins promoting each virtual author event months in advance via email and on social media. Discounts are offered on its website, as well as other special offers, such as signed bookplates. “It’s a whole marketing cycle for every event,” she added. It’s proven effective: in 2020 online sales rose 55% at Baker Book House over 2019.
One of the store’s most popular virtual author events was a conversation between Kristin Kobes Du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne, and Beth Allison Barr, author of The Making of Biblical Womanhood. More than 750 people attended, and nearly 2,000 watched it afterward on the store’s social media platforms.
The bookstore, pre-pandemic, boasted a robust programming schedule that included three or four author events per month, as well as monthly gatherings of local church librarians, regular story times, and live music performances, but it is now hosting as many as six virtual author events each month. When it resumes its regular programming this fall, Baker Book House will feature a mix of in-person, virtual, and hybrid author events that will be recorded in front of a small audience in-store and streamed via its social media platforms.
“We’re not going to stop virtual events, because of the access it’s given us,” Suttner said. She noted that, though Grand Rapids is the second-largest city in Michigan, due to its location—180 miles northeast of Chicago and 160 miles west of Detroit—many authors are unable to physically visit the store, particularly during the snowy holiday season. “[The virtual events] allow us to maintain a more robust schedule, even in winter.”
Reflecting on the past year, Suttner insisted that Baker Book House both has and hasn’t changed. “At its core it hasn’t,” she said. “The essence of what makes people want to work here, and shop here, is the same: this company really cares about its people, both employees and customers. What’s changed is we adapted well, we figured out how to survive when everything around us was not. We were quick on our feet. Every little change, we adapted.”
A version of this article appeared in the 07/12/2021 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Bookselling Profile: Baker Book House
Author: Aalto University
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