Whenever I get my hands on an old book, the first thing I do, sometimes without even realizing, is bury my nose into its pages. Everyone who’s come across that book before I did left something behind. Sometimes it’s a picture they used as a bookmark and forgot about and sometimes it’s just their scent. I can’t help but wonder who flipped through the pages before I did. Used books especially are more than the stories that are contained within them. Used books are artifacts that wear a coat of accretions from those who held it before me. Supposedly with over a million titles in the 901 West Lafayette location, I don’t know if John K. King Rare and Used Books houses more books or fragments of memories.
A Detroit native, King was always enamored with bookstores and antiques. Like most teenagers, King hung out downtown, loitering around his favorite establishments. Probably unlike most teenagers, King was drawn to bookstores. Fascinated by both the books and the characters in these bookstores and encouraged by his high school guidance counselor, Elsie Freitag, King naturally decided to become a rare and used book dealer.
Though King started his business in 1965, the first location of John K. King wasn’t established until 1971 in Dearborn, Michigan. King then moved his bookstore to the Michigan Theater Building in downtown Detroit when the Dearborn store shut down. However King quickly outgrew his
storefront in the building and resolved to renting office spaces upstairs in the building,sending customers back and forth with keys in hand to view the special collections he kept tucked away in the office rooms.
Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately in the long run) it wasn’t long before an increase in rent forced King to search for a new location. Luckily King found a location merely a 15-minute walk away, nestled between the borders of downtown Detroit and the West Side industrial area of Detroit. However King’s problems only seemed to get worse with the purchase of this space.
The West Lafayette building bounced from corporation to corporations before housing John K King bookstore. The history of the building is just as fascinating as King’s journey to the factory. The building was first built in 1905 for Ste. Claire Manufacturing Company. When the business went bankrupt the space sat vacant before another corporation came in. The same thing happened three more times before King found the space in the classifieds. (Corktown History)
When King bought the glove factory, it was abandoned. The sprinkler system, the pipes were all, in Kings words, “busted”. Surrounded by a parking lot and Florists’ Transworld Delivery (FTD) corporate offices, downtown Detroit wasn’t an ideal space for a new small business. As a small businessman, King had to go through layers of bureaucratic loopholes. In Detroit large corporations like General Motors or Karmanos receive benefits and support from the city. Small businesses however were left to find their way in the dark. Recently in an interview with John K. King, King explained his frustrations about the obstacles they had to cross to get the bookstore where it is today. “They [the city officials] don’t realize: We have a lot employees, most of them are Detroiters, we pay taxes, we pay all the outrageous stupid junk fees”(Metrotimes). King mentions in the same interview that cities like San Francisco are on the side of small business because it’s made of mostly small businesses. However in Detroit, small businesses have to “go through bullshit with the city”.
Dealing with “bullshit” from the city wasn’t the only setback. Two years after King established his first bookstore, Detroit faced several internal problems including violent riots, population shifts, and economic turmoil. People moved out of the cities and into the suburbs, away from “problem” areas.
Still King’s business continued to grow. 99 problems aside, King’s customers weren’t one. I poured through several articles and interviews about the bookstore but I couldn’t find any information on King’s customer base.
Still on the hunt for answers, I called John K. King bookstores and was able to get through to King himself. Getting right to the point, he said that his client based hasn’t changed in years. King is a collector of rare books and items and so are his customers. By the 1990’s, Detroit underwent major change. Downtown is now home to predominantly young professionals and waterfront property.
With the recent influx of “the techies, the hipsters” moving in, some customers just show up to the bookstore, wondering what’s hidden within the walls of the glove factory. But for the most part King’s customers come in with a good understanding with what lies waiting in the abandoned factory. King’s collection is rare enough to be listed as one of the best-used bookstores in the word by Business Insider. His customers travel from across the globe for the items housed in 901 West Lafayette.
With the rise of the Internet the bookstore faced another issue. Why go into a bookstore if you can easily buy something online from Barnes and Nobles? More importantly how do you catalogue over a million books so people know if what they’re looking forward is even in the store? Quite frankly, you don’t. Or that is the route John King took. Though King began to catalogue some titles, most remain catalogued. Referring to his bookstore as a dinosaur in the computer age, King explains that they were “here before Borders, during Borders, and they’ll be here after Borders” (MetroTimes).
So how is it possible that a bookstore that’s been through hell and back is still standing?
With a self-diagnosed inbred treasure-hunting gene, King looks for gems in estate sales and libraries. In the 33 years John K King bookstore has been in the 901 West Lafayette location, time stood still. People came in to find a particular book that they knew John King would have. John King established a bookstore but he also established a community of used book/antique lovers. Frances Steloff, the owner of Gotham Book Mart, ran her bookstore with the mentality that she only wants to handle the books she loves and nothing else(Rogers, 77). King takes the same approach. He handles the items he loves. Starting his collection back in the 60’s, King now has items like the first edition Book of Mormon, first edition Federalist papers, along with materials owned by people like Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain. (CBS).
King’s bookstore is a special place in the sense that it’s free from the feeling of being simply about facts and figures. Tim Cresswall talks about the feeling of place in an essay, he says, “To think of an area of the world as a rich and complicated interplay of people and the environment—as a place—is to free us from thinking of it as facts and figures”. When King moved into 901 West Lafayette, he surely wasn’t thinking about the economic benefits of moving into an abandoned building with only one neighboring establishment. Unaware of the history of the building, King moved in with the goal of filling all four floors with his own collections of books and antiques from history.
I’m not exactly sure how John K. King Rare and Used Bookstore survived for so long. I’m not a business or finance major so I certainly can’t say if it was a good decision financially. But the bookstore is still standing and it seems strong. Granted it is not the type of bookstore you might find current bestsellers but maybe a first edition of Twain’s Adventure of Tom Sawyer. The 901 West Lafayette location housed King’s bookstores for decades now, and I don’t know how much downtown Detroit will change in the next few decades but I do see John K. King Used and Rare books still at home at 901 West Lafayette.
Corktown History: < http://corktownhistory.blogspot.com/2014/08/john-k-king-books.html>
“Michigan’s Largest bookstore” <https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/88/f8/dd/88f8dde5807b60276fccacc156447d25.jpg>
Exterior of Theater Building: <https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f0/Michigan_Theatre_Building.JPG>
Label: John K. King bookstore Facebook page
Rogers, W.G. “Wise Men Fish Here”. New York. Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. Print
Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004. Print.
King, John K. Telephone Conversation. Feb 22 2016.