Family-owned bookstore helps Detroit's religious community turn the page on COVID-19

Walter Baker’s passion for entrepreneurship started early. 

Raised in Alabama, Baker and his family moved to Detroit when he was 9 years old. By age 11, he had established his own paper route and was actively learning how to generate profits and build up a consistent clientele.

“I learned from being a paperboy how to manage pennies, back then you made three cents on a paper," Baker says. "So I learned how to keep my paper route booked.”

Over the years that followed, Baker’s interest in entrepreneurship grew as he enrolled in business and vocational classes in high school. By 1970, Baker finally got the chance to put his business acumen to work in the real world.

“I went to visit my grandmother in Alabama and had the opportunity to purchase a [sundries] store,” he recalls.

Jumping on the opportunity, Baker spent the next seven years navigating the world of small business ownership as he ran the brick-and-mortar store and gained important skills that would stay with him over the course of a lifetime in business.

“I learned quite a bit about business at the market,” he says. “How to go about calculating percentages, how to go about marking up [products], and things you’ve got to do in business.”

By 1978, Baker was ready to explore new avenues of entrepreneurship. After selling the general store in Alabama, he returned to Detroit and spent the next 15 years earning trade licenses and working as a self-employed contractor. It wasn’t until 1993, though, that Baker found his calling when he opened Baker’s Bible and Bookstore at at 10200 Grand River Ave.

A Family Affair

In the early 1990s, after saving money to invest in a business together with his daughter, Carla, and son, Kelsey, Baker called a family meeting to discuss ideas and come to an agreement.

“We had some options," he says, "and we settled on the bookstore because we are, of course, very religious people."

“As a family, we all kind of came together and said, ‘hey, we want to support this and want to do what we can to create a family business,’” Carla Baker recalls, adding that her father’s long history of entrepreneurship inspired her and her brother to join the business early on.

The bookstore, which has remained in the same location in Detroit since it opened its doors over 27 years ago, quickly established itself as a popular resource for the city’s religious community.

Carla Baker, who has a degree in business administration, took on a role as the store’s manager in 1998, sharing its day-to-day responsibilities with her brother until his death in 2006.

“It’s been an awesome experience — and a roller coaster ride as well,” she says.

Walter Baker mans the counter at his Detroit bookstore during COVID-19.

“Things got better; things got bad”

Although Baker’s Bible and Bookstore flourished in its early years, Carla Baker says sales eventually began to wane in response to Detroit’s economic downturn and the increasing dominance of technology.

“We were [initially] really thriving in a local urban community,” Carla Baker recalls. “As the economy began to lapse in previous years, in our city of Detroit, we had a huge economic fall. People started moving out of their homes, people started relocating to other areas, and it was devastating.”

After starting off with six to seven employees, the bookstore was forced to downsize as the city’s economy faltered and the store struggled to find its footing on the internet as online sales increased in the world of commerce.

Over time, though, Carla Baker says things improved as the bookstore established a loyal clientele and embraced the idea of having an online presence, rather than continuing to struggle against it.

“Once we embraced [the internet] and accepted an online presence of our own, then things became a little bit easier for us,” she recalls.

These days Carla Baker and her father are the bookstore’s main employees, though they utilize some part-time help with stocking the shelves. Growth has also remained elusive for the small bookstore, which briefly operated a second location out of a local seminary between 2009 and 2010.

“Things got better, things got bad, things got better again. And then when things got better, COVID came — and things got bad again,” Carla Baker says. “It’s literally a roller coaster ride.”

Unprecedented Challenges

In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Baker's Bible and Bookstore shuttered completely in compliance with statewide shelter-in-place orders issued last March.

“We used that time to kind of get things back in order, if you will, to the best they could be for once the statewide shutdown was lifted,” Carla Baker says.

Because schools were also included in the statewide shelter-in-place orders issued last March, Carla Baker was forced to make a decision between managing the bookstore or staying at home to help her two young children adjust to virtual learning.

“[The bookstore] was my primary job,” she says. “It was very, very difficult because I had to choose — and I didn’t want to make that choice. But I had to do what I had to do for the safety of my family.”

Without regular employees to help run the store, Carla Baker says her absence affected the service that was available to customers and stretched her father thin due to his own challenges amid the pandemic as a senior citizen.

“Because [COVID-19] is something that attacks seniors and the elderly, there were a lot of precautions he had to take,” Carla Baker recalls.

Despite returning to work and reopening the bookstore with additional safety measures after the shelter-in-place orders were lifted last summer, operating throughout an ongoing pandemic has remained a challenge. 

Carla Baker says some of the store’s regular customers passed away from COVID-19 amid the pandemic, and a lack of support staff created obstacles for providing consistent service to customers. Decreased gatherings at places of worship also had an impact.

“Most of the churches are shut down,” Walter Baker says. “So [business] is not as great as it has been in the past.”

“We’re still here”

Carla Baker estimates that the bookstore’s sales have declined by about 80% due to the impact of the pandemic. Late last summer, those losses prompted her to seek additional financial support in the form of grants.

After applying for a small business grant through Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Detroit, Baker's Bible and Bookstore was awarded $20,000 in September. 

“COVID put everything in reverse,” Walter Baker says. “The [LISC] grant helped us, more or less, stabilize.”

In addition to helping the small bookstore cover business expenses and stay afloat in the wake of the pandemic, the grant also helped the Bakers afford additional Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) products to keep themselves and their customers safe.

Damon Thompson, from LISC Detroit, works with entrepreneurs to help them access financial and networking support.

“Providing financial support to long-standing family-owned businesses is key to preserving Black wealth that will impact generations to come,” says Damon Thompson, deputy director at LISC Detroit.

“LISC, through the partnership with Lowe’s, is happy to provide this small business grant to Baker's Bible and Bookstore — which, for 27 years, has been a pillar in the community and is one of the last remaining religious bookstores in Detroit.” 

That dedication to the local community is what keeps Baker's Bible and Bookstore running amid the challenges and uncertainty created by the pandemic.

“You don’t really know what’s going to come tomorrow, but we’re still here,” says Walter Baker, noting his philosophy that “business is a partnership with the community.”

“That’s the part that keeps us going. We know that [Walter’s] vision is alive. We know that he’s living his legacy. He wanted to be a light in the community,” Carla Baker says. “We pray that we’ll be able to get past COVID-19 so that vision will continue.”

Walter Baker hopes for better days for his business after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is part of a series supported by LISC Detroit that chronicles Detroit small businesses’ journey in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read more articles by Erin Marie Miller.

Erin Marie Miller is a freelance writer and photographer based in Metro Detroit whose work focuses on people and small business. Inspired by the genre of New Journalism, she is passionate about connecting people to their communities through meaningful storytelling.

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