|Living a legacy for 75 years and counting|
|Written by Ann Byle|
|Tuesday, 11 March 2014 10:24 AM America/New_York|
Baker Publishing Group moves into the future holding true to its evangelical heritage
Baker Publishing Group celebrates its 75th anniversary in April 2014, a significant milestone for the family-owned business under its third generation of Baker leadership.
“Our vision to serve the needs of the church has remained unchanged from the beginning,” said Dwight Baker, CEO and president of Baker Publishing Group. “From my grandfather Herman Baker to my father, Rich Baker, and to me, that vision guides us as we continue to watch for opportunities to serve the church.”
The company that was planted in a rented storefront and grew into one of the largest distributors of religious books—and then into one of the top names in Christian publishing—has its roots in evangelicalism. Those roots go deep and continue to nourish Baker Publishing Group as it looks to the future.
PRAISED BY COMPETITORS
Herman Baker was 14 years old when he and his family emigrated from The Netherlands. The oldest son of Ricco (Richard) and Jenny Kregel Baker found part-time work in the bookstore owned by his uncle, Louis Kregel. Herman’s time at the bookstore fueled his love for religious classics and seeded his dream of opening a bookstore of his own.
It wasn’t until 1939 when Herman was 28 that he opened Baker Book House at 1019 Wealthy Street in Grand Rapids. He paid $18 a month for rent, and filled the store with homemade shelves and the nearly 500 used books he’d collected through the years. Two used desks and a used typewriter came from The Salvation Army.
The relationship between the Kregel and Baker publishing families has remained strong as both companies operate out of their home bases in Grand Rapids.
“Louis Kregel vouched for the Baker family all those years ago, and that hasn’t changed. We still vouch for them,” said Jim Kregel, president of Kregel. “One publisher can’t cover the range of how we want to reach readers, so it’s a combined effort. We’re all trying to put out good material for readers, and we can do that without competition.”
Only a year passed after opening the store before Herman Baker ventured into publishing. In 1940, Baker Book House published More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation by William Hendriksen, a professor at nearby Calvin Seminary. More Than Conquerors proved to be the kind of book Baker loved: conservative, scholarly, biblical and timeless—and it’s still in print today.
By 1949, Baker Book House had taken root as one of the largest distributors of new and used religious books in the U.S. and around the world. The bookstore and publishing company expanded at the Wealthy Street location, with the store undergoing a complete renovation in time for the 1959 Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) convention—of which Baker Book House was a charter member—when it came to Grand Rapids.
While the CBA visitors admired the store, employees hoped they were the only guests. Located across the street from a grocery store, the bookstore had its share of rats looking for food. Battles ensued when such an uninvited guest showed up in the break room, and at least one employee worked at her desk with her feet in a trash can.
In 1964, Baker Book House celebrated its 25th anniversary by doing what it always did: publishing books. The Biblical World: A Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology, edited by Charles F. Pfeiffer, was published to mark the occasion, along with nearly 50 other titles released in fall 1964.
That love of Christian scholarship is echoed in another Grand Rapids-based company. Started in 1911 by William B. Eerdmans Sr., Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. shares a Reformed past and a publishing present with Baker.
“What they’ve done over the last number of years has been impressive; they’re alert to developments, creative and adventuresome,” Eerdmans Vice President and Editor-in-Chief Jon Pott said of Baker. “We’re kindred in many ways. Yes, we have to be competitive, but we also have lots of conversations with them. There is probably not a publisher we are more aware of than Baker.”
STEWARDING THE STORE
Herman Baker’s two sons, Richard and Peter, had joined the company by 1964 to work in sales and promotion, and used books were still a large part of the business.
Baker Book House had become a gathering place for pastors, teachers and lay people from the area and around the world. The likes of D. James Kennedy, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Peter Masters and J.I. Packer stopped in when in town. Ezra Carter, father of June Carter Cash, bought via mail order the “Preacher’s Homiletical Commentary,” a 38-volume set. A Baker employee later saw Carter’s son-in-law, Johnny Cash, at a conference and spoke to him about the series.
“Yeah, I have that set now,” the singer said.
As the business blossomed, the original home for the company became too small. A new 25,000-square-foot facility was built in nearby Ada, Mich., and housed the publishing division and the warehouse. That location is still home to the publishing company and has been expanded three times since it was built in the 1960s.
While Herman Baker was fond of the classics of the faith, he also recognized an opportunity to expand the business by publishing books for general readers. The first venture into that vast market came via Ron Hembree’s Fruit of the Spirit, published in 1971. By Baker’s 40th anniversary in 1979, books that reached the general market made up 60% of its list.
The 1970s saw big growth on the retail side of the business, thanks in part to Peter Baker. Six additional stores opened around West Michigan, though only the original store on Wealthy Street sold used books. But even that location became too small, and the store was closed and moved to East Paris Ave. in Grand Rapids in 1980.
The trend toward retail stores slowed in part at the death of Peter Baker in 1996, and in part because of a recession. The East Paris Avenue location is the only retail outlet remaining at this time. That store was given a $1 million renovation in 2012, turning it into a true destination for book lovers.
“The renovation put the store in a high profile both in the community and the CBA industry,” said Sue Smith, Baker Book House manager. “The statement made with this renovation was twofold: Baker Book House is deeply grateful for the first 75 years of service to Grand Rapids, and we also wanted to make clear that we are here to stay.”
That staying power is part of what made Herman Baker’s store so popular then and now.
“This is still Herman’s store,” Smith said. “I am keenly aware of that on a daily basis as I care for the deep heritage he left here. The store may be larger, more contemporary and have more gifts than Herman would have liked, but I believe that his vision is still moving forward. His passion for getting quality Christian writing into the hands of the church continues to thrive in this place.”
Curtis Riskey, president of CBA, for which Smith chairs the board of directors, appreciates the forward-looking nature of Baker Book House.
“In a time when some people question whether bookstores will remain viable, Baker Book House has established its retail leadership by becoming more than bookshelves,” Riskey said.
CHANGING WITH THE TIMES
Herman Baker was part of the day-to-day operations of Baker Book House Co. from 1939 until his retirement in 1987 when his oldest son, Richard Baker, became president. Herman died in 1991 at the age of 79.
Richard Baker’s decade as president of Baker Publishing Group was one of acquisition, expansion and deepening its roots in Christian publishing. In 1992, he purchased the Fleming H. Revell Co. and Chosen Books. Revell traces its roots to evangelist Dwight L. Moody, who convinced his brother-in-law, Fleming Revell, to take over publication of Moody’s Sunday school paper. Soon, Revell was publishing books, including all of Moody’s works.
During the 1970s and ’80s, Revell was bought and sold a number of times before finding a permanent home with Baker. Chosen Books launched in 1970 with its first book, The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom with John and Elizabeth Sherrill, now a longtime best-seller. Chosen was sold along with Revell several times before also becoming part of Baker.
The 1990s were the decade of technology for Baker Publishing Group. Computers made day-to-day operations much easier, allowed book design to be brought in-house and made communication seemingly light-years faster. In the mid 1990s, Baker became one of the first Christian publishers to have a website, as well as software versions of its titles via Baker Bytes.
Despite its place on the cutting edge of technology, it wasn’t until the 1990s that employees were allowed more than one pen at a time, and only with the dry pen turned in at the same time to the supply chief. The Dutch thriftiness that built a strong business extended right down to writing instruments.
Richard Baker stepped down as president in 1997, on the last day of the five-year paydown after the purchase of Revell. His son Dwight Baker stepped in with money to invest in staff, infrastructure and authors. One of his first moves was to bring the fledgling Brazos Press under Baker’s umbrella, with its three founders, Don Stephenson, Rodney Clapp and Bobbi Jo Heyboer. Brazos released its first three books in 2000.
By the end of the 1990s, the publishing division began operating as Baker Publishing Group, though its official name remains Baker Book House Company. The store name remains Baker Book House, which reflects the original name given so long ago to a small establishment that sold used books.
PRIORITIZING ITS VALUES
Baker Publishing Group entered the new millennium by expanding once again, this time via the 2003 purchase of Bethany House Publishers, based in Bloomington, Minn. The purchase nearly doubled the Baker line and strengthened immeasurably its reach into the fiction market with authors such as Janette Oke, Beverly Lewis, Lynn Austin and Tracie Peterson.
While the early 2000s were years of growth, the recession that soon gripped the U.S. hit Michigan hard. Sales in 2008 and 2009 fell drastically and the company was forced to take action. Pay was cut by 5% for those making more than $12 an hour, and austerity measures put in place. Office staff even took turns in the warehouse when a hiring freeze had workers falling behind in processing returns.
“When their backs are against the wall, the Bakers’ way has been to take austerity measures,” said Chad Allen, editorial director for Baker Books, who did his shifts in the warehouse. “Dwight Baker demonstrated that there is more to life than money. His priorities are people, books and community.”
Eventually, pay was restored and the hiring freeze lifted as the economy improved.
The company also bands together when employees face personal crises. In 2009, the wife of Human Resources Director Dan Baker was critically injured in a car accident and later died. The staff prayed and provided support, as they also did when the son of another employee was diagnosed with leukemia. The company paid for bone marrow testing for employees, hoping to find a match. Though no one matched then, several years later a match was made for another person in need.
LISTENING FOR HIS LEADING
Baker Publishing Group stays on the cutting edge of book trends, with all new titles released in e-book form and with almost all backlist titles converted to digital format as well. A new governing board formed in 2012 continues to help guide the organization.
“Our vision is to remain connected to the church,” Dwight Baker said. “This is what guides us as we watch for opportunities to use our resources.”
While formats may change and the audience shifts, “we’re fully invested—and that means we’re willing to take chances and listen to God’s leading,” he said.
Even 75 years later, the company’s goal is the same, reflecting the words of founder Herman Baker: “We love to sell a good book. There is no better business to be in. In books, we have the richest treasures on earth, the output of the best minds of the ages.”
Baker Publishing Group divisions: Baker Academic, Baker Books, Bethany House, Brazos Press, Chosen, Revell
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