John K. King Used & Rare Books: Preserving History & Place
When John King was a child, he enjoyed visiting used bookstores in Detroit and meeting the eclectic mix of people you’re guaranteed to find in a bookstore. In Sunwise Turn, Madge Jenison discusses this diversity of customers in bookstores, writing that “in a bookshop you drink democracy” (113). She writes with apparent fascination about the different types of people you can encounter in a bookstore—“all sorts, the great, and cold, young ex-convicts, shoplifters” (113) and it seems that John King shared this fascination. He was always intrigued by the bookstores he visited, and these stores seemed to become a part of his blood. In a way, it seemed inevitable that he would one day open his own used bookstore in Detroit.
In 1965, when King was a teenager, he found his way into the book business when he started trading books, and he opened a small shop downtown and briefly moved into a store in Dearborn, Michigan. In 1971, he opened a store in the Michigan Theatre Building in Detroit. Eventually, his collection of books outgrew the Theatre Building, so in 1983 he purchased the old Advance Glove Factory in Detroit where the store continues to thrive today.
This timeline shows the major events in the history of John K. King Used and Rare Books and the building in which it currently resides.
When King made the decision to move his store, he wasn’t concerned with the neighborhood. All he was looking for was a space big enough to fit his massive collection of books, which he found simply by searching in the classified ads. King didn’t seem to consider whether or not the residents of the area would be good customers, or whether his business would be able to thrive in a location somewhat isolated from the commercial area of downtown Detroit. He didn’t even bother to change the exterior of the building from an old factory to an inviting bookstore.
This all seems like a bad business decision to me, but clearly King did something right, because the store still stands. It seems like King had the attitude that his store would survive regardless of location or appearance because it sold old books, which he thought of as special products that would always be in demand. I think he would agree that he stumbled upon something special when he found this particular building.
Perhaps the most interesting bit of information about this building at the corner of Lafayette and Fifth is that it wasn’t always located there. When customers would tell King that his store had been moved from the corner of Lafayette and Fourth over to the corner of Fifth when it was still a factory, he had trouble believing them. He wasn’t from the area, so it probably would have seemed like the residents were just messing with the new kid on the block. I had troubling believing these customers too, when I first saw articles and stories about this so-called moving factory. Why would someone move a building? How would someone move a building?
The answer to my first question is the John C. Lodge Freeway. One of the first freeways to be built in Detroit, it encountered some obstacles, one of them being the large Advance Glove Factory that stood in its path. Construction began in 1947, and it destroyed thousands of homes and buildings throughout the city. But for some reason, the Advance Glove Factory wasn’t destroyed; instead, it was moved.
The answer to my second question leaves me skeptical, but according to the bookstore’s website, customers have provided photographic proof: the building was moved onto “log-like rollers made of Alabama gum wood” and rolled to the west (corktownhistory). Apparently the work in the factory didn’t even stop during the moving process; employees continued to go about their business as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
During the mid-1940s, Detroit dominated a number of industrial fields in the United States, including electric refrigeration, adding machines, stove manufacturing, and the most obvious one: automobiles. To transport all the products, Detroit began to construct the aforementioned freeway system, which not only destroyed public housing units, but also failed to offer residents relocation options. Though this was against the law, the city effectively created 17,000 refugees and a wide distrust for the government. As a result, many middle-class residents began to move to the suburbs, leaving those with lower incomes to remain in the distressed city (city-data).
However, Detroit began to recover during the 1960s, making efforts to improve education, housing, employment, and economic development. It was during this time that King entered the book business, his arrival coinciding with the city’s moves toward social progress. Detroit’s revival continued into the 1980s (city-data), when King finally found a long-term home at 901 West Lafayette Boulevard. King started his business at a time when Detroit was beginning to value culture and social progress again, driving people into bookstores at a higher rate than would have occurred in the previous few decades.
When King was a child, he says there were probably about 20 used bookstores in Detroit, all around the downtown area. Most of these stores have since disappeared, likely at the same time that the city was experiencing so much economic distress. It’s no secret that bookstores are becoming less popular now that ebooks and online shopping are all the rage, but King doesn’t seem worried about his store, for good reason. If the store can outlast Borders, why wouldn’t it be able to hold its own against Amazon?
To this day, King refuses to computerize his store. If a customer wants to find a particular book, a computer search cannot determine whether the book is in stock; the customer must wander the aisles. With four stories of books arranged on shelves with hand-written signs, it’s easy to get lost in the stacks, but the store undeniably seems alive and unique in comparison to the Barnes and Noble a few miles away.
Unlike your typical chain bookstore, John K. King Used and Rare Books hasn’t rushed to keep up with new trends in bookselling over the years. While the chains have added clean, organized, and familiar layouts, John K. King has remained a labyrinth where books fill every available nook and cranny. When I look at pictures of the store’s interior, it seems old-fashioned, and I can practically smell that distinct old-book scent through my computer screen. To me, John K. King Used and Rare Books looks like a time capsule that captures what bookstores used to be before the chains dominated the industry.
Of course, King’s refusal to turn to computerization in this modern age of bookselling seemed strange to me at first. After all, I’ve grown up with computers as the solution for practically everything. But the more I think about King’s store, the more I find his methods to be admirable. In the same way that the owners of the Advance Glove Factory didn’t want to see the building destroyed in favor of a new highway, King doesn’t want to see his old-fashioned bookstore change in favor of computerization.
To the owners of the bookstore and the factory, the building is not just a location for a business, it is a place that they have created in the neighborhood. As Time Cresswell writes, “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” (11). If the factory owners thought about the building as “facts and figures,” the factory would have been torn down to make way for the highway and moved to a new building. If John King thought about his business as “facts and figures,” he’d have computerized his store and imitated the layout of successful chain stores in order to maximize his profits. Instead of focusing on logical business decisions, these owners have embraced not only their locations in the neighborhood but the physical building itself. Cresswell writes about the concept of a sense of place, meaning “the subjective and emotional attachment people have to place” (7), and it’s obvious that the people behind this building are emotionally attached to their place. If the former and current owners of the building didn’t think their place was special or meaningful, they’d never go to all the trouble to preserve its history in the face of technological changes.
bookstore exterior: www.pinterest.com/pin/446278644297053705/
newspaper article: www.geocaching.com/geocache/GC55J62_mh-detroit-on-the-move
bookstore interiors: www.kingbooksdetroit.com/preview-of-our-store/
Corktown History: corktownhistory.blogspot.com/2014/08/john-k-king-books.html
John K. King Used and Rare Books website: www.kingbooksdetroit.com/
OU News Bureau: www.ounewsbureau.com/?p=2251
Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004. Print.
Jenison, Madge. Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1923. Print.
Sambrano, Marilynn. “Plot Seldom Quickens in Used-Book Biz.” Crain’s Detroit Business 11.15 (1995): 12. ProQuest. Web. 23 Feb. 2016.