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Remembrance — Store owner found dignity and worth in everyone

By Matt Russell

Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

Friends and family this week mourned the loss of Dennis Mulholland, who for 51 years owned Christian Book & Gift in Rochester, making the store one of a handful of its kind in the country to remain open so long under the same ownership.

Mulholland, 84, died July 3 of leukemia, a disease he was diagnosed with five years earlier. His store is poised to remain open for years to come, with family continuing operations.

Christian Book & Gift has its roots in the Home Book Shop, a business that was in Rochester for 20 years before Mulholland purchased it in 1957. He operated the store for years out of his family’s home on North Broadway, continuing to live next door after the store expanded and a conventional retail space was built.

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From the beginning, Mulholland didn’t handle the day-to-day operations of the store, according to family members. His wife, Elaine, managed the store at first, with other family members running it in later years.

Mulholland always kept track of the latest trends in Christian merchandising, however, and guided the store through the big picture as it kept up with radical changes in the industry. Under his guidance the store became one of the largest and most respected retailers of its kind in the region, a key resource for Bible study groups, home-schooling parents, and people seeking comfort in times of need.

"He wasn’t in business to make money," said 18-year Christian Book & Gift employee Bonnie Vesper, noting that Mulholland put profits back into the store so it could grow. "He was in business to serve people."

Born in Faribault

Dennis Wayne Mulholland was born Aug. 29, 1923, in Faribault. He grew up at a rural Zumbro Falls farmstead that would become a treasured place for him to visit later in life.

His early experiences with book-selling came in the late 1940s in New York City, where he worked at a religious bookstore near Carnegie Hall, while attending the National Bible Institute, where he received a degree in theology and was ordained.

Mulholland moved to Rochester with his family in 1952 and worked for Singer Sewing Machine before driving a semi-truck for Wonder Bread, a job he continued for years after buying the Home Book Shop.

Family members say Mulholland was a voracious reader and hard worker, who loved the outdoors and relished telling jokes and stories.

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"They always seemed to end in some kind of a moral, and you always seemed to learn something," said grandson Kyle McKenzie of Duluth.

Generous man

Mulholland’s family remembers the generosity he showed not just them, but the Mayo Clinic patients, missionaries, and other people in need of housing who regularly stayed with the family.

One time, a family story goes, Mulholland tried to help a vagrant by hiring the man to cook for his family. The man was by all accounts a horrible cook, repeatedly making baked beans, and eventually disappearing, stealing a suit from Mulholland and an alarm clock.

The incident didn’t stop Mulholland, however, as he bought other properties near the store and continued for the rest of his life to provide housing for people in need.

"He knew no ‘little’ people," said his daughter Marilyn Middleton of Tampa, Fla. "He saw that each person had dignity and worth."

Mulholland was a longtime member of Woodville Chapel, a non-demoninational rural congregation located between Zumbro Falls and Mazeppa.

Independent beliefs

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In an interview with the Post-Bulletin in 2007, he described himself as an independent in his Christian beliefs.

"I can be comfortable in a lot of places because denominational distinctives are not that important to me," he said.

Mulholland, who served in the Navy from 1945 to 1946, was a member of the Kiwanis Club and the Christian Business Men’s Committee. He served on the board of the Christian Booksellers Association, was on the board of directors for Camp Victory, and was a member of the National Rifle Association, the National Forestry Association and the Citizen Right to Keep and Bear Arms Association.

"His first love was blue jeans and a chain saw and a Bobcat (loader) and a dump truck and a farm," said the Rev. Jim Barnhart, a friend for nearly 40 years. "He’d cut wood all day and take it to somebody, because he knew they needed wood."

In interviews with the Post-Bulletin in 1982 and 2007, Mulholland compared running Christian Book & Gift with running a hardware store.

Still, he said in 2007 that from the beginning he saw the bookstore as a ministry, which he thought was a key to its success.

Over the years, Mulholland rode through the ups and downs of the Christian bookstore business, navigating the changes that happened between the days when people took off their hats in reverence in the store to a time when cartoon DVDs and hip-hop CDs occupy shelves.

"He did more than he ever thought he could," Middleton said, "and he attributed that to God’s grace in his life."

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