Nancy Edmonds Hanson
A fixture of Moorhead retail is closing its doors at the end of September.
Karl Bakkum, who with his wife Denise has owned and operated Melberg’s Christian Books & Gifts for more than 45 years, says of the company’s 70-year tenure, “It’s been a good run.”
Changing retail habits have dictated the move, according to Bakkum. “Because Christian bookselling has been our calling over these many years, this has been a difficult decision to reach,” he admits. “This has been our life. We have been fortunate in having careers that allowed us to do the things we’re good at … and to make a difference in the world.”
The Bakkums’ going-out-of-business sale began last week with 50% discounts on most of their merchandise, including faith-focused books, Bibles, gifts, wall art, jewelry, cards, music and DVDs. They are also offering lesser discounts on the supplies purchased by many area churches, among them communion wine, wafers and candles. Everything in the store, in fact, is for sale, including the shelving, display cases, fixtures and even the slat wall on which products are displayed. “We’re hoping everything will be gone by Sept. 30,” he confides.
Bakkum cited changes in bookselling over the years since his parents, Ugene and Sonya Bakkum purchased the business from founder J.P. Melberg in 1961, nine years into its tenure. “Dad had retired from the Navy and was working at Simon’s Furniture,” he recalls. “He went next door to Melberg’s looking for a part-time job for my brother.” Instead, Melberg offered a position to the elder Bakkum: “His Sunday school business was just exploding, with the Baby Boomer kids filling up the classes. He had semi loads of pamphlets coming in. He knew Dad from Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and thought he’d be just right for handling the shipping.”
In those days, Melberg’s was primarily a print shop. “Churches had their bulletins printed; they couldn’t reproduce them themselves,” Bakkum notes. When mimeo machines enabled them to duplicate the folders in-house, the company made the first of many adjustments in its history. Melberg sold the printing side to Diercks Printing and turned his focus to selling other church necessities, from Sunday school materials to candles and communion supplies.
After his family took over Melberg’s, Karl and his siblings pitched in. He remembers spending his free time in elementary school helping out, “mostly licking stamps in the shipping department,” he says. He and Denise took over the business in 1974. A decade later, they moved it from the old Foss Complex on Third Street to its present location in the brand-new strip mall dubbed Center Mall North.
“Originally churches represented 60 to 70% of our business. That changed over the years closer to 50-50, with book and gift sales to walk-in customers making up more and more of our sales,” he reflects. The church market was changing – smaller congregations, fewer Sunday school classes, Christian publishers turning to online sales instead of depending on bookstores to sell their products.
Retail itself has changed, he concedes. “There’s a little less loyalty, a little less commitment to support local concerns. The best price, the most convenience – customers are buying more on the internet.”
Those marketplace changes, Bakkum says, dictated his store’s closure. He put his building on the market four years ago and the business in early 2021, but had no nibbles, much less bites from potential buyers. “People see the reality of niche retail: It is becoming a thing of the past,” he says. “We decided to go out in a positive way, not to wait until the walls were crumbling around us.” He has sold the building to a buyer who does not plan to use it for retail.
Closing the family business is a dramatic step but not a surprise. Karl and Denise had seen it coming, he says, more than a decade ago. That’s when Karl returned to Minnesota University Moorhead to earn a master of fine arts in English writing, a program that itself was ended soon after his graduation in 2012.
He began teaching as an adjunct instructor at the State College of Science in Fargo. When a full-time position opened on the main campus in Wahpeton, he accepted the job, and began driving between the two cities five days a week. Denise has managed the store since then, with him coming in on Saturdays.
“There are forces beyond our control. Consumer buying patterns continue to shift in favor of the internet and against smaller retail ‘brick and mortar’ operations. It’s the old David and Goliath story, but in this case, Goliath dominates,” he points out.
After a lifetime of Christian bookselling, he says he’ll miss his customers the most. “I’ll miss the relationships with people who have come to mean a lot to us,” he predicts. “But it will be fun to see people at church and around town without the pressure of sales. We won’t be talking about business. We’ll be talking to friends.”