Award-winning design scores on two fronts


Sue Smith, manager of Baker Book House, said she appreciates the store’s new design, which still puts the emphasis on books. Photo by Johnny Quirin

Architectural design has been gauged recently and often by its aesthetics, its graceful stylish lines and engaging color combinations that create a sense of wonder and fill a craving for beauty. 

In other words, as art.

So sometimes the practicality of a successful design can go publically unnoticed. After all, architects design to fill a client’s needs, and a client’s needs often center around improving business by drawing more customers.

That is what Integrated Architecture seemingly has accomplished for Baker Book House with its redesign and expansion of the company’s 20-year-old store at 2768 East Paris Ave. SE. The firm has successfully linked the crowd-pleasing aspect of a design with the necessary business needs of a client.

The project took a year to complete — finishing in November of last year — and cost $1.4 million. But the investment of time and money has paid off in a couple of ways.

One, sales for Baker are up. Two, Integrated won an American Institute of Architects award from the Grand Rapids chapter for the design, which the jury characterized as a “library meeting a bookstore,” meaning the retail aspect was deliberately subdued. Because of that approach, Baker Book House gained a distinctive, new identity.

“Ooh, I like that,” said Sue Smith, who manages the store, when she heard the jury’s comment about the design. “I really do and that makes sense. Baker Book House is very unique to other Christian bookstores in the industry. And the reason for that is our focus is still on books.”

Smith has been with Baker Book House for nearly 14 years and has managed the store for the last six.

“The rest of the industry is concentrating more heavily on sidelines. So, gifts, for example, bring a nice margin to the bottom line, and books have decreased. As books have decreased, gifts have increased. If you go into any typical Christian bookstore, the first thing you’re going to be greeted with is gifts as you walk in the front door,” said Smith, who said sideline merchandise also includes music, videos and cards.

“I don’t think it’s too off to say we’re probably the only store in the industry where you’ll find books when you walk in through our front door.”

Even though the margin is bigger on gifts, cards and other sideline merchandise, Baker Book House has stuck with what it’s become widely known for, and that is selling books. And those sales have risen since the renovation was completed about a year ago.

“Sales are going really well. We’re very motivated about that,” Smith said with a laugh. “We’re up 50 percent for this last quarter over last year.”

Smith objectively pointed out that the store was preparing for and going through the renovation process a year ago, so perhaps the comparison is not quite apples-to-apples. Still, a 50 percent sales gain is nothing to sneeze at, regardless of the circumstances.

“I can compare it to the year before when we were not in renovation. We are still up 15 percent, which is still incredible for bookstores. It really is,” she said.

The Integrated Architecture design team began its work by flipping the office and retail spaces, moving the retail to the front and the offices to the back. Then they added 2,300 square feet of new space that consisted of cast stone, glass and metal panels along the front of the store that IA said created a “we are here for the long run” statement.

The interior was designed to be full of light and open. The lighting fixtures were supersized. Three-dimensional white ceiling panels were used to hide the duct work, define the space, create cozy nooks in the store’s café, highlight the information desk, and guide customers to the checkout registers.

Scott Vyn directs design at Integrated and told the Business Journal a lot of thought went into the practicality of how the firm could improve business at Baker Book House.

“A large portion of their work prior to the renovation was their Internet sales, as it continues to be, which doesn’t require any visibility by the general public or on the street. So a big emphasis of the project from the very beginning was to get a new front door and a new streetscape for the project,” said Vyn.

“Going beyond that, our goal was to create an inviting, warm and informative elevation to let people know what the building is,” he added.

Orion Construction managed the work, and all of it was accomplished while Baker remained open.

“We had to keep them up and running while the project went forward, which is another key driver … where design has to respect the business side of things,” said Vyn. 

“So while they were essentially flipping their business 180 degrees, by putting their Internet sales in the back and their retail up front, we had to pay special attention to how we made the changes so they could stay in business and continue to accommodate their sales during that period of construction.”

The project won Integrated an AIA Grand Rapids 2013 Honorable Mention Honor Award in the small commercial design category last month. Smith felt the award was well deserved and that the design played a vital role in boosting the store’s bottom line. 

But just as importantly, she is certain the project says something special about Baker, which turns 75 next year. “It was a statement to the community that we’re thankful for you and that we’re here to stay,” she said.

There is an old adage that still rings true: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In this case, the beholders are Baker’s customers and, according to them, the design has passed the test. 

“Everyone loves it,” said Smith with a smile. “Well, not everyone. You’re not going to get everyone to agree on something. But, in general, they do.”

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