John K. King Used & Rare Books: Isolated in the Big City
I’ve never thought of Detroit as an environment for trendy hipsters to browse quirky bookstores, so I was surprised to discover that Detroit is actually home to what Business Insider calls the “#2 bookstore in the world.” John K. King Used and Rare Books is huge; it holds over a million books in its four stories. The store resides in an old glove factory at 901 West Lafayette Boulevard at the edge of downtown Detroit.
What I find particularly striking about the store is that the image of a glove is still visible on the building’s exterior, and it looks more like an old factory than a trendy bookstore. On the inside, however, the image of an old factory goes right out the window when you take a look at the stacks of books crammed in every corner.
The store stands isolated and imposing on a street corner, beckoning only the most hardcore readers to enter. The chipped paint and dark windows don’t exactly seem welcoming, but if downtown Detroit residents or visitors to the area are anything like me, the promise of books is enough to lure them into the store.
There’s also the fact that the store’s uniqueness is intriguing. Tim Cresswell writes about the search for “an authentic sense of place” in neighborhoods, houses, and stores because people want to “live differently from the mass of people” (61). If people are tired of seeing the same design and layout in every chain bookstore they visit, they can’t deny that John K. King appears authentic and different.
Downtown Detroit is primarily a business district, though approximately 4,284 people call it home. The majority of the residents are African American, and most of the rest are Caucasian. This makes the downtown area a bit more diverse than Detroit itself, which is 82.16 percent African American.
The area is most popular with young people in their 20s and 30s, single (as in not married), with incomes on the lower end of the scale.
While the bookstore itself may not be bordered by many shops and restaurants, there are plenty of attractions within walking distance. Closest to the store are office and apartment buildings, but downtown Detroit has much more to offer visitors, like museums, historical sites, parks, and restaurants. Much of the area seems to be geared more toward tourists and visitors than residents, although the businesses would certainly appeal to the young people living there.
On the map below, the orange diamonds denote restaurants, the blue pins are historical buildings, the green pins are parks, the pink pins are museums, and the yellow circles are houses of worship.
As you can see, the red star representing John K. King Used and Rare Books looks a little lonely there on the map, but I would imagine that having the bookstore a bit removed from the regular hustle and bustle of the city creates a quieter, more relaxing book browsing experience.
While the bookstore is obviously located in a city, perhaps one of the reasons for separating it from most of the other businesses in the area comes from the success of suburban bookstores that began after World War II. As Laura Miller explains in Reluctant Capitalists, suburban stores may not have the same foot traffic as major city stores, but customers are often willing to drive to larger bookstores in less busy areas (91). John K. King offers free parking outside the store for just this purpose. You may not accidentally stumble upon John K. King while shopping in the city, but perhaps you’ll be willing to make a trip specifically to check it out.
Aside from the location, the transformation from glove factory to bookstore is unique; it reminds me of Tim Cresswell’s ideas about space and place. John K. King, the owner and founder of the store, transformed 901 West Lafayette Boulevard from an ordinary “space” where a factory once stood to a personal “place” with all the elements of culture we tend to attach to bookstores, seeming to give the building more value and a better sense of place. I can’t help but think that John K. King must have found something symbolic in this transformation process, that he enjoyed taking this unassuming building on the outskirts of downtown Detroit and adding his own style to create a successful bookstore, as if to prove that the culture of information and intellect surrounding bookstores can make even the most basic location or building interesting.
On the other hand, maybe John K. King simply thought it would be cool to establish a bookstore in an old factory. If that’s the case, can you blame him? I certainly can’t.
Cresswell, Tim. Place: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004. Print.
Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.