Michigan’s Baker Book House now serves its customers from a ‘completely new’ retail operation after total reconstruction
Baker Book House, the premier independent Christian bookstore in Grand Rapids, Mich., welcomed guests to its Grand Opening events after nearly 12 months of renovations. While the soft opening in November brought about 250 guests into the store to talk with best-selling author Ted Dekker, the Grand Opening featured a ribbon cutting, author visits and other events throughout January.
“We have recreated everything,” said Manager Sue Smith. “From carpeting to lighting, from adding event space to installing a fireplace. The store is completely new.”
What began as a remodeling project to replace dated and worn carpeting, wall coverings and display units became a total reconstruction of the store that included moving the entrance, adding a café and revamping every aspect of the 28,000-square-foot space.
Smith and Assistant Manager Debbie Butgereit started by approaching Dwight Baker, president of parent company Baker Publishing Group. After getting approval to remodel, they began researching costs and architectural firms. They came back to Baker with the grander idea of reformatting the entire store.
DOWN MEMORY LANE
Baker Book House moved to its present location at 2768 East Paris Ave. SE in 1980, and had been backwards ever since. The main entrance was at the back of the building, far from the busy street and customers’ eyes. Warehouse space was located in the front, presenting blank walls and a shipping bay to passers-by.
“We had three years of sales increases, which showed us that the store still had a role to play and that consumers in West Michigan were still interested,” said Dwight Baker. “We would have to double our investment over a simple remodel, but the limits of the current structure became that much more salient. We decided to do it right and get the store to face the road.”
The first step in the lengthy process was talking to staff members and customers about their likes and dislikes and what the store could do to improve staff and customer experiences. The staff needed better lighting, so more windows were planned to allow in natural light. Additional storage space on the retail floor meant employees weren’t running to the warehouse for stock nearly as often. The architects also consulted with shipping and receiving, warehouse staff and buyers for their input.
They asked customers as well. Used book buyers were adamant that nothing should change. They love wandering through the packed stacks of used books, loved the smell, wanted nothing to do with carpeting. Planners listened: the used book section, while in a different location in the store, still carries 100,000 titles and is still bare-bones when it comes to décor. Customers also wanted a café, so the store invited ICONS Cafe to set up shop.
ROCKS IN THE ROAD
The 12-month renovation wasn’t without rocks in the road. Managers had to figure out how to allow customers to shop while construction crews demolished much of the building. Inventory was cut, though no section was cut completely. About 95% of the used book section was stored in Baker Publishing Group warehouses, and gift and music sections were cut in half.
Parking was a problem as well, especially when giant construction vehicles took up much of the space. Employee morale took a dip, too. It was a constant challenge to keep spirits in a positive mind frame. All lived with constant noise and dust, intermittent Internet, smoke alarm and phone disruptions—and customer irritation when books weren’t on the shelves.
“We also had to learn how to make decisions in a hurry,” said Smith. “One day the construction crew said, ‘You have two choices: keep the used book section open, but it will take considerably longer to complete the project, or move all 100,000 books in five days to cut five weeks off the process.’ We moved those books!”
JUST THE RIGHT BOOK
Baker Book House is well known for its used book section and its theological/academic section often tapped into by the area’s many pastors, seminary students and church leaders. The store designed those sections for optimal ease of use. One of its other goals, however, was to appeal to the children of those adults looking for just the right book.
The store’s train table had long been a popular spot for young guests, and Butgereit, assistant manager who is also the children’s buyer, wanted to keep that feel while offering even more.
“We want the kids to feel at home and happy in the children’s section, but it also fits our bigger goal of being a family bookstore,” she said. “We want parents to feel comfortable letting their kids roam around the section. It’s definitely more shopped by the kids now, but we wanted to get the kids to interact with the product. I’ve been happy with the progress so far.”
One struggle that Christian bookstores, including Baker Book House, face is getting young adults into the store and into the YA section. Baker has placed the section near the music department, a big YA draw, and provided higher shelving to set it apart. Butgereit is careful to differentiate books for middle readers, ages 8-12; young teens, ages 13-16; and older teens, ages 16-19. The separation isn’t necessarily for the kids, but for parents who want age-appropriate books.
TRUE TO ITS IDENTITY
Creating a new bookstore is much more than choosing carpet and furniture colors, studying traffic-flow patterns and curtailing costs. Every decision comes back to the basic question: Who do we want to be? It was an ongoing discussion among Baker’s core staff.
“What we saw happening is that the church sees us as a resource for books and other materials, and the community sees us as a place to connect with others in the church,” Smith said. “Customers think of us as a bookstore first. We put our primary book space at the front of the store and created a visible, well-stocked academic section because so many pastors and students live in Grand Rapids or visit here.”
Smith calls it the store’s “book” image, which mandated an academic bargain section, the huge used-book section and a robust online business. In addition to books, however, the core staff was eager to create a community feel to the new store. A 20-by-28-foot community room with conference table and audiovisual equipment will be available to rent for churches and community groups; a 16-by-16-foot fireside room is available for informal gatherings or just sitting awhile; and the café offers catering and food for purchase.
“Our goal is making the store a welcoming place for the community, but also the best place to buy books and gifts,” said Smith. “Every decision we made about the new store was based on who we believe Baker Book House to be.”
Cost overruns and delays were no surprise to either Baker or Smith, but both feel the renovations were worth the ordeal, in part because the store needed the remodel to reach a new generation of customers, but also because the community needs to see a business improving, not closing.
Store hours increased to 7 a.m.-11 p.m., the café offers snacks and light meals, Wi-Fi is free, the conference room is for rent, and the bookstore walls will display a rotating exhibit by local Christian artists.
A new event coordinator—a position created to accommodate author and artist visits and other events, room rental and artist exhibits—will help organize the new vision to reach as many people as possible.
“We’re thrilled about the new Baker Book House,” Smith said. “We want to thank the community for staying with us for so long. We really feel this new store is our gift to them.”
Dwight Baker said he sees the store as “the public face of our business.”
“This reconstruction says that we’re here for the long term,” he added. “The community has been supporting the store for decades; we owe this store to the customers. I think it’s going to be a community center for the faithful.”