BATHGATE, N.D. -- Tiny Bathgate (population: about 40) is an unlikely spot for a book-publishing company. But Bethlehem Books, here in the northeast corner of North Dakota 10 miles from the Canadian border, is flourishing and connecting with customers worldwide.
Most are in search of historical fiction and children’s books with a Christian worldview, said Jack Sharpe, publisher, who works with a team of about five other members of the Bethlehem Community.
“I would call us extreme bibliophiles,” Sharpe said.
He and his colleagues are members of the Bethlehem Community, a group of devout Catholics who came to Bathgate in 1999, after living nearly five years in Warsaw, N.D., he said. “We out-grew that location.”
In Bathgate, they live and work in a three-story building, dating to 1909, that used to serve as the North Dakota School for the Blind, which relocated to Grand Forks, and later as a rest home. Bethlehem Books publishes books primarily for the home-school market in the U.S. and Canada, Sharpe said.
“The business comes out of a life,” said Rose Sharpe, daughter of Jack Sharpe and an editor and artist with the private company.
The Bethlehem Community’s 13 members in Bathgate are Benedictine oblates of Mount Angel (Ore.) Abbey, Jack Sharpe said.
“Publishing means spread the good news,” said Lydia Reynolds, another editor.
The mission of Bethlehem Books is to find and publish high-quality books that speak to the imagination of the reader, whether child or adult, Reynolds said. “These books are for all ages.”
“Some have gone out of print and we’re trying to bring them back,” Rose Sharpe said. “Some of our customers are people who were raised on Bethlehem books and now they’re buying them for their kids.”
Some books have gone into the public domain, she said. The company tries to locate authors, some of whom have publishing “agreements from way back, usually for a certain amount of time,” she said.
Saved from extinction
Bethlehem Books seeks to republish books that represent “a great era” in children’s literature in the 20th century, said Reynolds. “It started in the ‘20s, rising to a crescendo in the ‘40s and ‘50s. In the ‘60s, there was a change in direction; the quality changed.”
“... There was a difference in tone in some cases,” Rose Sharpe said.
The historical fiction of the past is well-researched, Reynolds said. “They are well-written books; some began to be forgotten as librarians tried to make room for new books.”
With the rise in home-schooling, “parents found that historical fiction is a great way to interest kids in history and make history come alive.”
“It’s such a privilege to keep these books in print,” Rose Sharpe said.
Founded in Oregon
Bethlehem Books, founded in 1971 in Portland, Ore., is associated with Ignatius Press.
“We co-publish our books with Ignatius Press of San Francisco,” Jack Sharpe said.
Workers in Bathgate also handle hundreds of calls a day for Ignatius Press.
Members of the Bethlehem Community were living in Cincinnati when they were invited by Bishop James Sullivan of the Fargo Diocese to come to North Dakota in 1994 and settle in Warsaw, where they renovated a former convent.
The company has published 75 printed books and about 130 e-books. It has acquired upwards of 18,000 titles in various stages of disrepair.
“Some books have been read to pieces, literally,” Rose Sharpe said.
The re-typesetting, editing and some of the artwork is done in-house. Some books are scanned in-house and reformatted at another company. Books are printed by a Kentucky printing business.
The internet has opened the company to a worldwide market of potential customers, and marketing through Amazon has boosted sales considerably, Jack Sharpe said. “We’ll surpass 18,000 downloads next week. People who like our books really like our books."
Amazon is “our biggest distributor; we have a big presence on Amazon,” he said. “Facebook has become huge for us.”
Social media has allowed the company to reach many more potential customers at far less advertising cost than print magazines, he said.
Bethlehem Books is associated with several home-school companies that provide curricular materials to parents who teach their children at home.
“They have curricula that include some of our books,” said Daniel Rasmussen, as he prepared to mail an order of books.
“Five hundred books this week are going out,” he said. “July and August are our biggest sales months.”
“Because people are stocking up for school,” Rose Sharpe added.
“It’s wonderful to reach thousands of children,” said Rose Sharpe. “A lot of our books are wonderful to read aloud.”
The publishing company also has produced almost 30 audio books, a growing segment of the business, over the past four years, said Rose Sharpe.
Voice professionals at distant studios are hired to read, she said. “The sound quality has to be very precise.”
Another growth area is e-books, Jack Sharpe said. “We’ve published 130 e-books. Who would’ve thought a couple years that we would’ve published that many?”
It costs between $5,000 to $8,000 to get one print book out, but only about $300 for an e-book, he said.
The company, which also produces about 100 CDs a year, publishes a quarterly review that highlights what the employees consider to be the best of children’s literature of the past century.
For the members of the Bethlehem Community, book publishing “has been a gift,” said Jack Sharpe. “It’s given us international outreach.
“UPS comes through here once a day, so we can send from here to anywhere in America overnight.”
He’s not favorably impressed by the quality of children’s books these days.
“There’s a lot of junk out there right now for kids,” he said. “(Books aimed at) children in primary grades are way over the top. There’s a lot of confusion happening.
“We give people an alternative.”