An Oasis of Literature

An industrial district residing on the outskirts of downtown Detroit may not seem like a productive location for a bookstore, but John K. King Used and Rare Books has proven otherwise, having operated out of the locale for more than thirty years. Initially established in Dearborn, MI, this bookstore was first moved into the Michigan Theatre and later found residence in an abandoned glove factory, where it still stands today. The nature of this industrial location certainly shines through in the building’s aesthetics, as the bookstore presents a sort of rustic and rundown appearance. However, do not let these outer showings fool you, for the contents within are as valuable as the name would entail. As an indicator of its quality stock, John K. King Used and Rare Books has even been recognized by CNN and named the second best bookstore in the world by Business Insider.


In the effort to truly define John K. King Used and Rare Books as its own place, I find it best to refer to the studies of Tim Cresswell. This scholar has devoted immense effort into defining what we consider “places,” and his reflection upon the nature of the term is one of the best ways to begin my approach. “Place, in whatever guise, is like space and time, a social construct.” (57) Cresswell’s observation of place demonstrates that the term is a product of human interpretation. Various considerations come into play when a “place” is defined, but the physical and cultural factors of the area tend to be the predominate determinants. We already understand the physicality of the bookstore within the context of a factory situated in the west industrial district of Detroit, but we have yet to observe the structural nature of the surrounding environment.

Relatively speaking, John K. King Used and Rare Books is a rather isolated facility. Being located outside of the main downtown area creates a significant divide in how much attention it can garner, but perhaps this position helps filter the clientele it receives. The included Google map exhibits most of the establishments contained within the general vicinity of the bookstore. Designated by the yellow star is John K. King Used and Rare Books itself. Diamonds represent culinary facilities, like eateries and breweries, while circles are used to show public services. These include the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters, Greyhound Bus Terminal, local Salvation Army, and even a news station designated WDIV. There are two churches within a few blocks of the bookstore, as shown by the cyan squares, and the Sports Hall of Fame, along with the Cobo Center, are signified by the blue squares in the lower east. The final location, which houses the riverfront apartment complexes, is shown as a magenta marker just south of John K. King Used and Rare Books. There really isn’t any better way to describe the local area other than varied and dispersed. Variety is definitely present among the surrounding establishments, but there is a definitive lack of congestion that you would see in the more city oriented areas of Detroit. While its positioning may not attract as much attention as it could, the isolation does create that quiet area that you could never even hope to achieve in the city.

The physical status of the John K. King Used and Rare Books is just one of the two main factors involved in this “social construct” we understand as “place.” In order to get the full picture, we must now examine the cultural influences surrounding the region.

Detroit racial composition
Demographic profile 2010[115] 1990[116] 1970[116] 1950[116] 1940[116] 1930[116] 1920[116] 1910[116]
White 10.6% 21.6% 55.5% 83.6% 90.7% 92.2% 95.8 98.7%
 —Non-Hispanic 7.8% 20.7% 54.0%[117] n/a 90.4% n/a n/a n/a
Black or African American 82.7% 75.7% 43.7% 16.2% 9.2% 7.7% 4.1% 1.2%
Hispanic or Latino (of any race) 6.8% 2.8% 1.8%[117] n/a 0.3% n/a n/a n/a
Asian 1.1% 0.8% 0.3% 0.1% 0.1% 0.1% 0.1% n/a


At the heart of culture resides the people that compose it, so it is always beneficial to understand the backgrounds behind them. From an ethnic perspective, the majority of current day residents are of African heritage, with the second most populous being Caucasians. There are also noteworthy percentages of Hispanics and Asians that live there as well, though their numbers are vastly smaller by comparison. If there is anything to take away from this table of statistics, it should be the diversity that currently exists among the populations of Detroit. It wasn’t always this way, as the beginning decades duly represent, but the populations have gradually spread out to establish a much better sense of multiculturalism than was initially present. Equally important as ethnicity in our understanding of Detroit’s culture is the economic condition of the area. Unfortunately, Detroit has undergone severe financial declines in the past decades. One of the most recent blows to the economy came with the collapse of the American auto industry a few years ago. These incidents over the years have placed the area of Detroit, and its many denizens, in a state of widespread poverty. Although these people are subjected to financial struggles, a provider of used books is just the kind of retailer that such a population can benefit from. It is in this way that John K. King Used and Rare Books establishes a niche in the market capable of satisfying customers of any financial level.

Alongside the people, art itself has served as an incredible influence in defining the culture of Detroit. Music is one of the forms that is deeply rooted in the city, with genres such as jazz, Motown, punk rock, techno, and hip-hop all finding solace within its walls. Some of the most famous figures in music have emerged from this city, and the impact of art doesn’t stop here. In addition to music, theater has also served as a focal point of the artistic community. Fisher Theatre specifically has been responsible for hosting a venue of shows, with the bulk of current productions being Broadway shows. For art forms such as music and theater to hold this much value explains why John K. King Used and Rare Books has been able to maintain its iconic status through the art of literature.

Tim Cresswell placed a great emphasis on the difference between “space” and “place” in his exploratory essays. “Space” is acknowledged as being innately present in all areas of reality, but it is up to us as humans to assign significance and establish “place.” For John K. King Used and Rare Books, its “place” is the cumulative result of its physical and cultural influences. The location and people behind this bookstore have defined it as the icon that it currently is. Without these invaluable factors, this bookstore would be nothing more than another “space” in the city of Detroit.



Textual Resources

 Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden: MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004. Print.

“Detroit” Wikipedia. 31 January, 2016. Accessed February 4, 2016.

“Culture of Detroit” Wikipedia. 13 October, 2015. Accessed February 4, 2016.

Media Resources

Google Maps

John K. King Used and Rare Books Building

John K. King Used and Rare Books Sign

Further Information

John K. King Used and Rare Books Website