Conversion prompts vintners to sell out, purchase Berean bookstores


As the clock ticked toward the final decade of the 20th century, Joseph and Deanna Gimelli decided to put their business skills to work by opening the Pietra Santa winery in the northern California community of Hollister. The Italian name translates to sacred or holy rock, reflecting the vineyard's proximity to a quarry.

Together they established the small family winery that garnered state and international awards. The wine also garnered the attention of Rachel Ray, the young cooking sensation from the Food Network. From its 150-acre lot, the company distributed 50,000 cases of wine annually, in addition to a separate award-winning olive oil product line also at the winery.

But six years ago, even as their own crop was being pressed into coveted wine, the Gimellis souls were being pressed into by the Lord.

"We both got on our knees and prayed for God," Deanna said in a telephone interview from her Hollister home. "We never looked back. We discovered what a way to live. We wouldn't have it any other way. We said, 'God, this is all yours. Do with us whatever and whenever you please."

The Lord took them at their word, she said, adding that God revealed to them through John 15 that He was calling them out of an earthly vineyard and into God's vineyard.

"But first you have to prune," she said. "It was quite a journey. We didn't realize God was equipping us and preparing us."

Two years later they sold the winery and are now investing solely on the Pietra Dura or solid rock—Jesus Christ.

"It was right for our life," she said. "God had a plan. The Lord is quite something when you start praying to live out your life through Him. I'm just grateful he considers us worthy."

Buying Berean
Their newest venture became public this summer when they announced the $2 million purchase of Berean Christian Stores out of bankruptcy. The company owns 18 stores in the United States, including five in Southern California. The company will keep its name, and Bill Simmon, the company's president and CEO, has been retained to oversee day-to-day operations.

"We believe in our hearts that God never intended for Berean to be dissolved," she said.

Long patrons of the bookstore, the Gimellis' first pull toward Berean was two years ago when they discovered the company was owned by an equity-fund investor.

"It seemed alarming that it wasn't owned by a nice Christian family," she said.

But in those days, the economy was still cranking and the thought of a financial fall was still a few months away.

"Two years ago it wasn't attainable; it wasn't available," she said.

Just as other businesses found themselves underwater with expanding debt and slowing sales, Berean faced its own mortality early this summer when its previous owners filed for Chapter 11 protection in an effort to shield the stores from its $6.5 million debt. Eight retail centers were also closed over the past year.

Gimelli said she believes her husband's 18 years of business and distribution experience is a perfect starting point for Berean.

"We want to move forward with God's plan, that is, to stay focused on Jesus and what He did on the cross for us," she said.

Targeted focus
Short term that means the company will focus on the sales of Bibles and Bible study materials. Eventually the stores will also host organized Bible studies in-house. The Gimellis also would like to expand their services to help resource churches.

Long term, she said, they are looking at helping to foster an increased commitment to volunteerism within the community.

"It's the people who need Jesus, and how do we reach them?" she said. "God will open the pathway for that."

Opening more stores is also under consideration. In the meantime, the company plans to keep its remaining 350 employees on the payroll, with no further store closures expected at this time.

Fundamental to all of their plans will be biblical stewardship, Deanna Gimelli said, stressing Matthew 6:33's mandate to "seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."

"Even though we call ourselves proprietors, we consider ourselves stewards," she said.

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