Catholic bookstore owner sees work as ministry

| September 14, 2011 | 0 Comments
Bob Balk

Leading With Faith winner Bob Balk owns St. George Catholic Books and Gifts in Blaine with his wife, Sharon. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

“Now what?” Bob Balk wondered after the clothes manufacturing company where he worked for 25 years closed seven years ago.

It wasn’t long before the answer came to him. He and his wife, Sharon, would open a Catholic bookstore.

The first thing the couple did was discuss the idea with their pastor, Father Jon Vander Ploeg, who gave them his blessing, Bob said.

Then they went to work.

“We felt a calling to do this,” said Bob, 54. “We had no game plan or initial thoughts of how this should all play out. It was more of a gut feeling, and we just figured that we would be led to do whatever came up.”

They found space for the store at a bustling intersection of Highway 65 North in Blaine.

“We actually signed a lease before we knew where to buy a book,” Bob said. “We didn’t realize how hard the work was going to be. So it was trust, obviously, but we knew there was a need.”

More than a job

Shortly after the Balks signed the lease for their store, Sharon and their daughter, Rachel Wilson, attended a Catholic trade show in New Jersey. That week, Sharon heard the name George mentioned repeatedly.

Taking it as a sign, the Balks christened their store St. George Catholic Books and Gifts, after the third-century martyr who is commonly depicted slaying a dragon. “We just feel that he’s out there for the good fight,” Bob said.

Bob sees his work as a ministry and a calling.

When people come into a Catholic bookstore, it’s because they have a spiritual need, he said. Occasionally he offers to pray with people who appear troubled.

“Every day you just have to shake your head because right when you think, ‘Does it really matter?’ something happens in the store or someone will say, ‘This affected me in this way.’ . . . Then you know that God is showing you that what is going on here is not to be minimized,” he said.

Bob delights in helping customers find exactly what they’re searching for as well as introducing them to new authors. “What’s so neat is when you see even older people just act like kids in a candy store,” he said.

A family business

Despite having grown over the years, St. George remains a family business. The couple’s five children, ages 18 to 27, all have worked there at one time or another, and Bob considers the employees members of his extended family.

Even though he’s the owner, Bob pitches in wherever there’s a need, from ringing up sales to hauling boxes to cleaning bathrooms. He also mentors children whose parents bring them to the store to volunteer.

On a recent morning, a customer stopped to converse with a familiar face in the parking lot, and a man passing through the propped-open door with his teenage son greeted the employees like old friends: “Hey, how are ya?”

“I think of us as kind of like the Catholic Cheers,” Bob said, referring to the sit-com bar “where everybody knows your name.”

“When you’re surrounded by all of these people who are so prayerful, you really can’t think of any other better place to be working,” he said. “. . . There’s genuine joy. No matter how hard the struggles are, you know that it can be brought back into perspective and you know God’s leading the way.

“I think there’s a purpose and there’s a reason why we’re here, and that’s proven by all the people and the faces and the discussions that we have,” he added. “Hopefully we’re part of building the body of Christ. That’s such a joy and a goal and a challenge at the same time.”

St. George Catholic Books is located at the intersection of Highway 65 North and 109th Avenue NE in Blaine. The website is http://www.stgeorgebooks.com.

Biography

Title: Owner of St. George Catholic Books and Gifts, Blaine

Parish: St. Paul, Ham Lake

Spouse: Sharon

Children: Rachel Wilson, Hillary, Dan, Ruthie and Josh

Activities: Volunteer at church

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Category: Leading With Faith