Organized Chaos in John K. King Used and Rare Books

Imagine walking down West Lafayette Boulevard and stepping inside John K. King Used and Rare Books. When you cross the threshold, you’ll immediately see shelves of books stretching far back into the store. Remember, this store used to be a factory, so the building is more massive than your typical bookstore. On the first floor you’ll see popular books, titles that will likely sell quickly: Bibles, juvenile nonfiction, classics, and cookbooks. Whether you are 20160314_173533000_iOSan avid reader or not, these books will seem fairly accessible, and you may choose to just stick to this floor. If you’re feeling curious, though, you’ll wander up the stairs to check out what else the store has to offer. You’ll visit the second floor, which holds mostly reference books and educational texts, a significant difference from the accessible titles on the first floor. Then you’ll find your way to the third floor, which holds books you might choose for entertainment: mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, and picture books. These books mark a transition back to accessible, popular titles.

By the time you reach the fourth floor, you may feel a little tired from climbing so many sets of stairs, but the sight of seemingly endless shelves of books will surely cure you of your weariness. This floor holds the most obscure collection: books about pets, fitness, religion, agriculture, philosophy, and a number of other random categories. Most of these titles probably won’t interest you, but perhaps one small section will catch your eye, and you’ll scour the selection for the perfect book about law enforcement or anthropology or fashion.

As I virtually browsed the store, using pictures and videos to piece together the fullest picture of John K. King Used and Rare Books possible, the term that came to mind over and over again is “organized chaos.” As you can see on the floor map, the store has designated sections for every category of books, and handwritten signs clearly label the individual shelves. But the store also features crates and boxes scattered on the floor, presumably crammed with books that can’t fit on the shelves, as well as stacks of books on tables. Even with four stories, the store simply doesn’t have the shelf space for all of its books, so the booksellers leave them lying around wherever they will fit.


Through social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram), the store promotes its aesthetic: dark, dusty, overflowing shelves.

Unlike so many bookstores with bright and open spaces, John K. King Used and Rare Books has a labyrinth of shelves with plenty of dark corners to hide away in as you browse for hours. The fact that the building is an old factory is quirky and artistic, especially since there is evidence of the store’s history in the design, such as the image of the glove on the outside of the building. Rather than conforming to the standard image of a bookstore, John K. King Used and Rare Books lets itself stand out as unique. It also encourages customers to get lost in the shelves. It’s not the store you go to when you want to quickly find a specific book; it’s the store you go to when you want to get lost in literature. By promoting the value of spending time in a bookstore for personal enjoyment rather than for the purpose of purchasing a specific product, John K. King signals to visitors that it isn’t a place that’s only concerned with making a profit. John K. King seems to treat the people who come into the store as book lovers rather than consumers.


The booksellers of John K. King Used and Rare Books mostly buy books that are rare or obscure, books that can’t easily be found online (Detroit Gems). I think the fourth floor is an excellent example of how beneficial it can be to stock such obscure books. The store doesn’t have to compete with online retailers who stock the same titles, and customers are lured in by the promise of old, unusual books. Take a closer look at the map I’ve drawn below, which shows the different categories of books on the fourth floor.

The organized chaos of the store and the randomness of the fourth floor selection remind me of Walter Benjamin’s thoughts on collecting. In Illuminations, he writes, “there is in the life of a collector a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order” (60). If we assume that all of the books in John K. King form a collection, then we must acknowledge that the booksellers are collectors who experience this tension. While the sections of the store are neatly labeled, the organization seems random upon closer inspection. Books about geography are placed next to books about the Kennedy family, and books about law share a shelf with books about interior decoration. These categories don’t clearly connect to each other, so in this sense, the collection is disorganized, a sign that the employees of the store simply shelve books wherever there is room for them. Yet the collection swings back toward the pole of order when you consider the booksellers’ criteria for buying any book for the store. Since they only buy books that are old or unusual, every book in the store fits into this particular category, so there is some amount of order to the collection. John K. King balances the disorder with the order, using labels and maps to create organization in a large space filled with approximately one million books of different categories.

The care with which the booksellers at John K. King Used and Rare Books organize their store demonstrates that they treat their books as valuable things. Bruno Latour has examined the distinctions between objects and things, claiming that objects are “abandoned to the empty mastery of science and technology” while things are “cradled in the respectful idiom of art, craftsmanship, and poetry” (2288). In his eyes, things have “rich and complicated qualities” that should be celebrated as being different from mere objects (2289). Based on Latour’s definitions, I think the booksellers at John K. King would consider books as celebrated things as opposed to objects. In an interview, one of the booksellers told a Detroit news program that “the books are very much something special” and that “reading is an emotional experience” (Detroit Gems). It’s clear that the booksellers at John K. King don’t think of their books as regular products; they value books and literature for the ideas and emotions they provide customers.

Of course, since John K. King holds so many books, it’s possible that the booksellers don’t think of every single book as a valuable, celebrated thing. Would the books about engineering on the second floor be considered things as valuable as the books of poetry on the first floor? If we use Latour’s distinction between objects and things, wouldn’t the books about math on the second floor fall into the category of “empty mastery of science and technology”? Or are they special because they provide educational insights into this empty mastery? In John K. King Used and Rare Books, we see how the collection of so many different types of books in one space can complicate Latour’s ideas of objects and things.



“More Books” staircase:

Map of store:


Environment shelf:

Books on table (juvenile nonfiction section):

Front counter:

Stairway painting:


Stairway (art):

Shelves (nook):

Stairway (3rd floor):

Shelves (3rd floor):

Books on floor:

Books on table:

Slideshow images:


Exterior of building:×315/4e/15/e8/4e15e8fe487b11df0bbdfd5e5831808d.jpg

“I’d rather get lost” note:

4th floor:

Books on table:





Detroit Gems:

Literary Tourist:

50 Year Staple of Detroit:



John K. King Used and Rare Books:

John K. King Twitter:

John K. King Tumblr:

John K. King Instagram:

John K. King Facebook:



Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968. Print.

Latour, Bruno. Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? Print.