Our History

From an immigrant's dream to an industry leader—this is the Baker Book House story

In 1939, A young Dutch immigrant opened a used-book store in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Herman Baker filled his store with five hundred books he had collected over the years, displaying them on homemade shelves. More than eighty years later, his company has grown into one of the most influential Christian publishers and retailer in the world.

The Beginning: 1925–1938

In 1925, Herman Baker was fourteen years old when he and his family emigrated from the Zoutkamp area in the northern region of the Netherlands to Grand Rapids, Michigan. They quickly made a home in the Dutch community that had grown steadily in Grand Rapids and West Michigan since 1847, when the first immigrants arrived. The Reformed faith of the immigrants was preached in the churches and fiercely defended and openly discussed in the workplaces and homes of a people who often read theology in their free time.

Shortly after arriving in Grand Rapids, young Herman found a job working part-time in the bookstore owned by his uncle, Louis Kregel. Those days working in the bookstore fueled Herman’s love for religious classics and jump-started his dream of beginning a book business of his own.

Before Herman fulfilled that dream, he had other business to attend to. He and Angeline Sterkenberg married in 1932 and began their family. First Joanne was born, and then Richard in 1935. Ruth Ellen and Peter joined the family in the next years.

The Early Years: 1939–1949

At age twenty-eight, with help from his in-laws, Herman Baker opened his bookstore at 1019 Wealthy Street in Grand Rapids. The year was 1939—the Great Depression was nearing its end and German troops invaded Poland in the opening salvos of World War II. Herman paid just eighteen dollars a month to rent the bookstore space, which he filled with homemade shelves that displayed almost five hundred used books he had collected over the years. His equipment consisted of two used desks and a typewriter purchased at the Salvation Army.

The demand for used religious books soon exceeded expectations. Herman expanded his business into several ground-floor rooms and then into the basement. Continued growth meant purchasing adjoining buildings and converting upstairs apartments into storage and display rooms.

Just a year passed after opening the store before Herman Baker took his first steps into publishing books. In 1940 Baker Book House released More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation by Dr. William Hendriksen, professor of New Testament exegetical theology at Calvin Seminary, located a short distance from the store. More Than Conquerors proved to be the sort of title Baker loved to publish: conservative, scholarly, biblical, and timeless. The book is still in print and continues to gather praise nearly seventy-five years after the original publication.

Herman Baker purchased the Wealthy Street building in 1942, gradually growing the business through the war years. There were times, however, when he had to wait for money to come in before buying postage stamps to send out more catalogs. The catalogs were painstakingly typed by hand, with workers going through every book on the shelves and listing author, title, and price. Buyers sent back their order form with payment, and staff pulled the books from the shelves and mailed them out. The war years saw the first new and used fiction sold at the store, in part to draw in the many women who stayed home while the men went off to war. Baker knew how to sell books.

Years of Change: 1950–1964

The years following the end of World War II in 1945 brought growth across America, especially, thanks to the GI Bill, at colleges and universities. Seminaries and Bible colleges expanded as well and soon found themselves in need of reference works, commentaries, textbooks, and preaching aids. They sought books on archaeology, Christian education, church history, and a host of other topics. Baker Book House was poised to answer that need thanks to its newly minted publishing program, its deep inventory of used books, and improvements in the offset printing process that made reprints easier to produce.

The early 1950s were years of change for Baker Book House and the Christian publishing world in general. The Wealthy Street store underwent a complete renovation inside and out in 1953, providing additional space and improvements for both publishing division office staff and the bookstore. New books and products were located on the first floor, with used books housed on the second floor.

Many of the bookstore employees came from nearby Calvin College. One of the most notable was Nicholas Wolterstorff, who taught for thirty years at Calvin College and has become a well-known author, philosopher, and theologian. He is currently the Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University.

By the twenty-fifth year, Herman Baker’s sons, Richard and Peter, were part of the staff. Richard came on in 1957 after attending Calvin College and graduating from the Publishing Procedures Course sponsored by Radcliffe College. He worked in sales and promotion, covering the eastern territory. Peter joined the business after attending Calvin College and Davenport Business Institute. He visited Baker Book House accounts in the Midwest territory.

The used-book division of Baker Book House was an essential part of the business—Herman Baker, after all, began his profession as a dealer of used books—and accounted for a large share of its business. Gary Popma, who joined Baker Book House in 1959, helped purchase libraries, classify and shelve books, keep track of the stock, and oversee preparation of the used-book catalogs sent out several times a year. Along with used books, the division also sold out-of-print books.

Popma, with help from employees such as Pat Reurink Hoeksema, who began working at Baker in 1961, kept the used-book section neat and well organized. Hoeksema and others typed each catalog by hand, moving a portable table and typewriter along the rows to document each book. Catalog pages were laid on light boards for proofreading. Once the catalogs were mailed out, employees had about two weeks’ rest before orders began flooding in. It is said that even Eleanor Roosevelt purchased books from Baker Book House.

The twenty-fifth-anniversary brochure mentioned plans for expansion: “Also in the offing is a major building and expansion program. Tentative plans call for a doubling in area of the headquarters building, giving more adequate space for the retail store, new offices for the publishing division, as well as much-needed additional room and facilities for receiving and shipping.”

The Growth Years: 1965–1986

The late 1960s onward were years of unprecedented growth for Christian publishing in general and for Baker Book House specifically. The bookstore on Wealthy Street became a gathering place for area pastors, teachers, and laypeople eager to find the newest books or to fill holes in their libraries.

Mondays were often the busiest day because pastors, on their day off, visited the bookstore to meet fellow ministers, discuss and debate theological issues, and soak in the sights and smells of the many books.

Often pastors and teachers visited Grand Rapids just to shop at Baker Book House. The narrow aisles were filled with the likes of D. James Kennedy, Jimmy Swaggart’s employees purchasing books for the new seminary library of World Evangelism Bible College, and David Otis Fuller of nearby Wealthy Street Baptist Church. Fuller, whose theology differed from the Reformed tradition of the Dutch Bakers, was known to walk by the store, see a book on display in the window, and step inside to say, “Are you sure you want to sell that book?”

Other visitors included David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, longtime minister at Westminster Chapel in London; Peter Masters, minister at Metropolitan Tabernacle in London; and Ernest E. Jolley, a United Pentecostal Church International minister. Reverend Jolley was one of the rare few given a key to Baker Book House for his twice-yearly visits to the store from his home in Arkansas. He shopped well into the night, leaving his piles of books to be cataloged and billed during the day.

J. I. Packer was a guest as well, one time tangling in the leash of a dog that neighborhood children had brought into the store. Harald F. J. Ellingsen, author of the Baker title Homiletic Thesaurus on the Gospels, toppled down the steep steps leading from the used-book section of the store.

Ezra Carter, father of June Carter Cash, bought via mail order The Preacher’s Homiletic Commentary, a thirty-eight-volume set covering the Old and New Testaments. Gary Popma later saw Carter’s son-in-law Johnny Cash at a conference and spoke to him about that commentary series. “I told him that his father-in-law bought that commentary set from Baker Book House. Johnny said, ‘Yeah, I have that set now.’?”

Building and Buying

Perhaps the biggest move during the 1960s was construction of a twenty-five-thousand-square-foot facility in Ada, just east of Grand Rapids, to house the publishing division and warehouse. The building has been expanded three times since then, adding space to the mailing and warehousing departments as well as publishing-division offices.

Baker Book House was a force in Christian publishing in the 1970s, its influence acknowledged with an article about Herman Baker in the magazine Publishers Weekly. The article quoted Herman as saying, “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.”

Retail Growth

Baker Book House began as a used-book business and later branched out into publishing. In the 1970s, the retail aspect of the business was going strong under the leadership of Herman Baker’s second son, Peter.

In 1968 Baker opened a store in Holland, about twenty-five miles southwest of Grand Rapids. A third store opened in 1970 in the Benton Harbor area. Then, between September 1972 and April 1976, three stores opened in Breton Village Mall in Grand Rapids. The first, also named Baker Book House, sold religious and secular titles from the major publishers in both realms. Paperbacks on Parade sold only paperbacks, and the third store, Pooh’s Corner, specialized in children’s books. In late 1978 the company established an outlet store in Grand Village Mall in the Grand Rapids suburb of Grandville.

The flagship Wealthy Street store continued to sell new books but was the only location that sold used religious books via over-the-counter sales and a robust mail-order business. However, the Wealthy Street store had its idiosyncrasies. While it drew the most learned theologians from churches and colleges across the nation and the world, it also drew rats that had found a food source at the grocery store located across the street. Longtime employees remember the rats well, along with the epic battles that ensued when one of the rodents made an appearance.

The day finally came when the constraints of space, age, and location meant closing the Wealthy Street store. In July 1980 the move to 2768 East Paris Avenue in the Grand Rapids suburb of Kentwood began. Catalog and office divisions moved first, followed by used books and shipping and receiving, with the store moving last into the remodeled warehouse space of the former Pella Windows store. The space dictated the layout of the building: the Pella offices and showroom at the front of the building remained offices; the warehouse at the back became the retail store.

The Transition Years: 1987–1999

Herman Baker was a constant presence at Baker Book House from the beginning in 1939 until his retirement in 1987. He took an active role in running the business and as a caretaker of the evangelical, Reformed tradition. He cared deeply about the employees, calling each by name. In fact, after his retirement he continued coming to work every day except for the several weeks he and his wife, Angeline, spent in Florida each year.

Richard Baker, Herman’s oldest son, became president of Baker Book House upon Herman’s retirement. Peter Baker, Rich’s younger brother, was vice president of the retail sales division at that time as well. Despite his retirement at age seventy-six, Herman continued to play a role in the book business as publisher-at-large. He continued working until his death in February 1991 at age seventy-nine. He died doing what he loved: sitting in his chair listening to classical music at his vacation home in Stuart, Florida. His wife, Angeline, died at age ninety-one in late 2003.

Richard Baker worked his way up the ranks of Baker Book House, from sweeping floors as a boy, to the sales department as a young man, and finally to president at a time of growth and transition for the company. He and his wife, Fran, whom he met at Calvin College and married in 1957, have four children: Dawn Baker Faasse, Dwight, David, and Dan. Rich made sure the children were familiar with the company, often bringing them in to the office or warehouse on the weekends.

New Leadership

The 1990s were also a time of transition in leadership. Rich Baker, who had led the company since 1987, stepped down in 1997, and his oldest son, Dwight, stepped in. Dwight had grown up at the company his grandfather started. Like his father, Dwight started out sweeping floors, washing windows, and packing books into boxes in the mailroom.

After graduating from Grand Rapids Christian High School, Dwight attended Calvin College and majored in art. He joined Baker Book House in 1979, was appointed art director in 1983, and became executive vice president in 1991. Dwight designed about half of the company’s book covers and jackets, while Dan Malda designed the interior pages of almost all books.

On the retail side of the company, all stores except the Kentwood location eventually closed. Then in 1996, Baker Book House experienced a devastating loss when Peter Baker, vice president of retail sales, passed away from leukemia. He was fifty-two years old and left behind his wife, Carol, and four children. Peter was Herman Baker’s second son and a visionary in book retailing, one of the first to open a bookstore, Pooh’s Corner, devoted exclusively to children’s books.

One of the key changes made during this time reflected the growth and breadth of Herman Baker’s vision and Richard Baker’s forward thinking. The publishing divisions began operating under the name Baker Publishing Group, though the name Baker Book House Company survives as the official name of the organization. The bookstore in Kentwood kept the Baker Book House moniker, a reflection of the original name given so long ago to a small bookstore that sold used books.

The New Millennium: 2000–Present

The early 2000s—a time of continued growth and deepened commitment to reaching readers with fine books—were the calm before the storm of a huge recession that hit the United States, with Michigan particularly hard hit. Sales in 2008 and 2009 plummeted as consumers struggled to make ends meet due to job loss and higher costs of living. The book publishing industry was hit especially hard, with Baker Publishing Group no exception.

Many other companies went through staff reductions during this time, a step that Dwight Baker sought to avoid. Instead, the company announced in late 2008 that every employee making more than twelve dollars per hour would receive a 5 percent pay cut. This action, in addition to a hiring freeze and many other spending reductions, enabled the company to get through the recession. Staff members’ pay was later restored as economic conditions improved.

The company also banded together to support employees in times of personal crisis. One of these took place in 2009 when the wife of human resources director Dan Baker, youngest son of Richard Baker, was critically injured in a car accident and later died, leaving two children behind. The staff of Baker Publishing Group prayed and provided encouragement and support to one of their own.

For Wes Brower, executive vice president of finance and operations, the Baker family showed their support and concern when his son Dan was battling leukemia at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago a number of years ago. The family received many cards and gift baskets and much prayer support through Dan’s three-and-a-half-month battle with the disease that took his life.

A number of people at the company had their bone marrow tested—at company expense—to see if they were a match for Dan Brower. None were, but several years later one of those tested matched someone in need. The bone marrow donation was made and was a success.

Looking to the Future

The future is bright for Baker Publishing Group. Baker Book House, the retail arm of the company, underwent a million-dollar renovation to update and expand the store in 2012. Current bestsellers, backlist titles, and a deep academic section draw casual readers and scholarly experts. Customers come from around the world to shop the store’s ninety thousand used books and bargain area; authors—from Ted Dekker to Liz Curtis Higgs to Charles Stanley—are eager to do events at the store; and the community has found a meeting place replete with private conference rooms, Wi-Fi, a café, event space, and comfortable seating.

Broader service to the Christian publishing and retail community remains part of the Baker ethos.

Note from Dwight Baker

When we review the past few decades, it becomes clear that we have made our greatest progress during those periods when our confidence and comfort levels are comparatively low. I refer to those occasions when we have over-extended ourselves and faced demands that were outside our usual boundaries. The challenge might appear in the form of a business acquisition or an ambitious new project. Or it might arrive in the form of a threat, such as the recession, a large failure, or the departure of a highly valued employee.

The scope of our publishing and retailing services will continue to expand as long as we don’t grow too comfortable in our own space. We do our best when we are in over our heads, and we eventually forget about how panicked we felt at the time. That’s one of the amazing aspects about book publishing. Yes, it is conservative by nature and rich with tradition, but every morning on the job I still feel like a freshman. There is still so much to learn about serving the church through publishing, and that is its enduring joy.