John K. King Used and Rare Books: History Within The Page

John K. King’s Used and Rare Books had a very mobile history, but the greatest shifts took place in its literary stocks.

Everything in this world has a history behind it, and it’s through this recollection of the past that we gain an insight into the subject at hand. John K. King’s Used and Rare Books is no different, for the rich history behind this bookstore clearly demonstrates how it has come to be recognized as one of the greatest in the world. When considering everything that has transpired to define this establishment, the subsets of place and literature come to the forefront. Tim Cresswell, made famous for his studies surrounding human geography, published a piece of writing entitled “Place” that thoroughly set the standard for how such is to be understood in this modern age. “But place is also a way of seeing, knowing, and understanding the world.” (Cresswell 11) By observing how this bookstore, being the “place,” underwent its various shifts in location, we can hope to gain an idea of how to understand it within the context of this world. Though the history of John K. King Used and Rare Books is occupied with significant instances of physical transitioning, a far more noteworthy series of changes were occurring to the literature. An amassment of over one-million books doesn’t come about in a day, but it was the diligent work of John K. King himself that collected this surplus of literature over his many years in the business.

John K. King was a man devoted to literature, and it was this deep interest that spurred the creation of his now world famous bookstore.

To begin understanding John K. King Used and Rare Books, we first have to explore how this bookstore initially came into fruition. In some of the earliest accounts of John K. King, he was noted for having a deep passion for books and antiques. With the heavily influential support of his high school guidance counselor, King was inspired to transform his interest into a profession as he opened up his very first bookstore in Dearborn, Michigan (1965). Operating out of the location for six years, King made good use of this hub in his bookselling efforts, but the need for more space to accommodate his ever expanding collection of books pushed him to relocate.

In 1971, John K. King made the decision to transfer his bookstore from Dearborn to the Michigan Theatre Building, which had a very prominent position in the Downtown district of Detroit. For the beginning years after the move, this old theatre served King well with an upgraded capacity in comparison to his first location. However, the issue of finding enough room for his increasing stock of literature once again became a major concern. The Michigan Theatre happened to have a number of empty offices in its upper floors, and these spare rooms were a temporary fix for King’s dilemma. Renting out many of these sections in the upstairs of the building, he now had further storage for his growing collection. However, this solution soon proved more impractical than anything else. Accessing any of the books that were housed in these offices required quite a journey, and the amount of money it was costing King to continue renting them quickly added up. Having realized the need to further his growing business, John K. King finally decided to purchase a building of his very own.

The Advance Glove factory was purchased by King in 1983 and has served as the central location for John K. King Used and Rare Books ever since.

When 1983 rolled around, a famous establishment in the industrial section of Detroit found itself on the auction block. The building was none other than the Advance Glove factory, which had long been abandoned at 901 West Lafayette. Interestingly enough, this building had a considerable history of its own before settling in its current location. Advance Glove Manufacturing had experienced several relocations and one catastrophic fire before finding a base of operations in Downtown Detroit during the 1940’s. Even after that, the business had to change its location once again, for a project, entitled the John C. Lodge Expressway, threatened many of the establishments in the industrial district. Shifting a mere 600 feet, the Advance Glove factory moved to the same spot that it stands in to this very day. Although this building had a rich past of its own, it was its immense area that drew King in. The old factory boasted four spacious floors perfect for the amount of inventory he would later move in.

It didn’t take long for John K. King to fill out all of his newly acquired space, for shortly after its purchase, the Advance Glove factory housed thousands of books on every floor. King was a man always looking to collect more and more, so it should come as no surprise that he later underwent another expansion after purchasing even more property. Referred to as the Otis Elevator building, this office complex sat directly behind John K. King Used and Rare Books, making it an optimal piece of property for his needs. Acquisition of these offices provided King with the opportunity to appropriately divide his stock into rare and common pieces. Now, the upper floor of the Otis Elevator building serves as the primary location for all of the rare literature and material that King comes across in his business ventures. As for the rest of the building, it’s just more convenient space for none other than his consistent influx of used books.

The books that find their way into King’s store are not bound by condition or language.

The physical history of John K. King Used and Rare Books is essential in understanding its “place,” just as Tim Cresswell would agree. King’s bookstore has undergone many significant shifts in location, and all of these have had their own effect on how this outlet for used and rare books is perceived by the public. While this transition possessed a prominence of its own, there was an even greater evolution occurring as King continued to expand his library of books. As more and more literature poured into his possession, the possibility of finding something that would appeal to a particular consumer became ever more likely. This expanding variety of King’s bookstore immediately made me think of the excerpt, “Jewish Bookstores of the Old East.” It was mentioned how “Here in this shop you may get in Yiddish Shakespeare, Goethe, Schiller, Tolstoy, Gorki, Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Dante, Swineburne, Shelley, and various other great writers in all languages.” This plethora of excellent books with their multitude of translations is exactly the kind of material that finds its way into King’s shop, and subsequently the same type of literature that enriches his store with historical value.

A glimpse into the kinds of rare literature that can be found in John K. King Used and Rare Books.

In John K. King Used and Rare Books, the extent of his stock isn’t limited to traditional literature either. While the writing of famous authors is readily available for anyone interested, other unique pieces, like autographs, archives, and photographs can also be found among the shelves. Noteworthy examples of such include the automotive manuals of Dodge and Delorean, autographs of celebrities, and even original photographs of Mark Twain himself. Over the course of a lifetime, John K. King has amassed a collection of literature unseen by any other independent bookstore. Some of the most recent surveys even have the number of books in his inventory estimated at over 1 million, with no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

John K. King Used and Rare books is an extraordinary bookstore ripe with historical value. Its physical changes echo the progressive growth the establishment has undergone since its conception in 1965, but its literature holds the richness with which the store is imbued. Every book that navigates its way into John K. King’s possession has a history of its own that you could only begin to speculate on. Each page of a story is infused with value readily available for some curious reader to recognize. To think that an establishment that now hosts more than 1 million books began with a passionate reader operating out of Dearborn, Michigan is only a testament to just how much history lies behind John K. King Used and Rare books.




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

“Jewish Bookstores of the Old East.” The Exchange 1981, 1996: 17. Print.

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