Christian Retailing

Central Minnesota’s Bethany Book & Gift store celebrates 75 years in business Print Email
Written by Ken Walker   
Thursday, 07 August 2014 04:15 PM America/New_York

Christian retail location was once the namesake of Bethany College of Missions—which spawned Bethany House Publishers

As central Minnesota’s Bethany Book & Gift observes its 75th anniversary, co-owner Mike Woodard finds it exciting to play a role in such a storied history.

“It’s interesting to think about the path the store has taken with different names and locations,” Mike said of the outlet, which originated in 1939 as the Gospel Art Store. “It’s adapted to changes but has always been a light for Christ in our community.”

DebMikeWoodard-BethanyExteriorAlthough Karen Gehrls and her husband, Tim, sold the store to Mike and his wife, Deb, eight years ago, Karen is thrilled to see it reach this milestone.

“I used to go to the store when it was in (founder Alice) Frei’s house,” said Karen, who still fills in when the Woodards are short-staffed. “I never dreamed that one day I would be co-owner of it.”

Located two hours north of Minneapolis, Bethany Book changed hands a couple times before becoming a namesake of Bethany College of Missions—the same group that founded Bethany House—when the college purchased it in 1970.

A year later, the newly graduated Gehrls went to serve a one-year internship at the store, but remained in the area and purchased it in 1978.

The couple ran the bookstore for 28 years before selling it to the Woodards in 2006. Deb had started as a clerk in 1988 and gradually took on management responsibilities. She calls it “pretty unique” for an independently owned store to reach this milestone.

Still, keeping up with the demands of the store in Baxter and a second business she and Mike acquired two years ago leaves Deb straining to find time to celebrate.

“Maybe it should be more of a big thing, but I’m so overwhelmed with the daily to-do’s that I can’t give it too much attention,” she told Christian Retailing.

A July anniversary sale featuring 20% to 40% discounts and several major prize drawings were the only direct ties to the historic occasion. No one knows the exact date the business began.

“We hoped we would generate some new traffic and that folks will remember to come back during the Christmas season,” Deb said of the summer sale.

After moving out of Frei’s home, the store was located in nearby Brainerd until spring 2002, when it moved to a more visible location in Baxter.

Two years after the Woodards’ purchase, Bethany Book would move again to a 3,000-square-foot home in a new shopping center, just across from a Costco and two blocks from Walmart.

After they acquired it, Tim, a real-estate appraiser, found himself with more demands on his time than he could accommodate. Finally, he joined his wife full time.

With help from four part-time staffers, the Woodards are a team. Mike applies his business expertise to handling books, taxes and government regulations. Deb oversees ordering and customer contact.

“He and I complement each other,” Deb said. “We joke about how I buy stuff and he pays for it.”

Together, the couple strives to keep their business fresh and offering unique items. If Walmart or Target stock it, they aren’t interested, Deb said.

With book sales declining steadily the past two years, a 2012 acquisition that boosted customer traffic is Character Plus. The 40-year-old business started in the Twin Cities to produce personalized name plaques and other items with scripture on them.

When the couple running that business offered to sell so they could retire, the Woodards decided these gift items would make a good addition and provide another revenue stream. They ship items internationally via website orders and deal with Christian stores nationwide.

Mike oversees manufacturing, with the display prompting squeals of delight from customers who recognize the plaques from childhood. Deb said it isn’t often this kind of specialty line lasts for four decades.

“We had a lady in the other day, who shops here once a year, who said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you could still get those,’ ” Deb said. “She bought three and called back later and ordered another one. A woman just called and ordered four for her great-grandchildren.”

Bethany Book has a cadre of loyal customers, including Shelly Thelen. After deciding to follow Christ in 1996, Thelen went searching for Christ-centered music for herself and her children.

“Deb showed me Supertones Strike Back [by The Orange County Supertones], and my son and I loved it,” Shelly said. “That was my first purchase, and I keep coming back. The staff always welcomes me, and the atmosphere is pure family.”

Dona McEnelly sees the store as an inviting, comfortable place with knowledgeable, helpful staff.

“I know I can find quality cards, books, music and many more things,” McEnelly said. “Sometimes it’s a great place to go when I need a little pick-me-up and an encouraging word. We are blessed to have them in our community.”

For the Woodards, the feeling is mutual.

“We are fortunate to have a lot of customers who appreciate us being here,” Mike said. “Their positive feedback is very motivating.”  —Ken Walker