WRITER | KIM HYTINEN
PHOTO | RICHARD LIM
In a modern world where bookstores are scarce and facing extinction, there remains a relic, of sorts, in Detroit that is worth an afternoon’s visit. It’s a place rich in history, where turning the page is not a thing of the past, where there are more books than people living within the city limits, where the smell of vintage ink on aged paper awaits escape from the confines of shelved existence by the mere curiosity of a reader. Visitors to John K. King Used and Rare Books won’t need their tablets or cell phones for entertainment. With miles of books to peruse, the only technology needed is the analog clock telling you to gather your basket of books as it nears closing time.
In 54 years of collecting and selling, John King has amassed an astonishing multitude of books, many rare or unusual and antique. What began during his high school years as an interest in picking antiques has grown into a lifelong passion and business, becoming the largest book collection of this sort in all of Michigan and one of the most sizable in the United States. King opened his first small storefront in the 1960s in downtown Detroit, expanding to Dearborn in 1971. His second location struggled, and he eventually closed it, returning the business to Detroit soon after and occupying the beautiful and notorious Michigan Theatre Building. It wasn’t long before his collections outgrew that space and, in 1983, King purchased a building – a vacant glove factory on Lafayette in Detroit with quite an impressive history of its own.
Described as “organized chaos” by Michigan photographer Richard Lim, John King Books is the place to go for bibliophiles. That’s a fancy word for book lovers, and it’s a perfect description for those who frequent this store. Lim had driven past the warehouse for years without ever setting foot inside until one rainy January day. He and his family loaded the car for a day trip to the city, making the bookstore their main stop. Camera in hand, Lim wound his way through an eternity of books, feeling inspired by the century-old walls and the wealth of knowledge bound to the shelves within. He found beauty in the bookstore and its aged presence and captured its personality in photographs.
“It’s four floors of treasures. Books upon books!” Lim says, “I knew it would have lots of character, so I decided to bring my camera just in case and was not disappointed.”
Most folks visit the store out of curiosity or in search of a special book rather than to soak up the aesthetics of the place. Lifelong Detroiter Wayne Persall has been a customer for decades. His first foray into King Books was in his 20s with a young appetite for topics of an unusual nature and for books that proved difficult to find elsewhere. He took a liking to the stacks and rows of books immediately.
“This place has an aliveness that modern bookstores can’t match,” says Persall. “A tangible presence, of sorts.” Some of his favorite items in the collections include the many autographed books, turn-of-the-century atlases and maps, and a JFK autograph. “You need a map to lurk effectively through the place.”
With a million books and counting, space is precious; every nook and cranny is filled. Most texts are housed in the four-story warehouse King purchased 36 years ago, but even that is bursting at the seams. The huge building, built in 1905, nearly lost its top floor to fire in 1914. Believed to be due to faulty wiring, the flames were quickly extinguished and the building saved. By 1931, the structure became vacant due to the impact of the Great Depression. Then, in 1948, the entire factory was picked up and moved several hundred feet on large log rollers to accommodate the construction of the John C. Lodge Expressway.
To satisfy more customers, allow for more administrative space, and continue to grow the collection, John King Books also occupies the former Otis Elevator building behind the Lafayette Street warehouse and operates an additional storefront in nearby Ferndale. For more than 30 years, King also owned The Big Bookstore in Detroit, but he decided to close it a few years ago when the footprint of the neighborhood around the store changed, and business dried up. However, the main bookstore on Lafayette with its charming, old-fashioned ways is standing the test of time. According to King, this is possible because he has stayed true to his mission of selling books – not books and coffee with accompanying pastries and lounge chairs with charging ports. Books. Just books. Well, and manuscripts, maps, and other printed materials.
“If it were closer to home, my wife would have to send in a search party to find me,” says Tom Mann. He’s only half joking. Mann, who grew up in Sterling but has spent his adult years living in the suburbs of Detroit, loves John King Books. “I would happily lose myself in there.”
An avid reader from a very early age, he reads almost anything he can get his hands on and has scouted bookstores and libraries across the country. Upon his first visit to the warehouse, he recalls it having an Indiana Jones feeling about it. For him, it was an adventure around every corner, and time swiftly passed before he realized he had been browsing for six hours. Mann still has not made it to the rare book room, which is a floor housing more than 25,000 rare titles. But he is aware of their in-person service. Are you looking for a specific title? The staff can help with that – even the most obscure title will not deter them.
“The prices are amazing,” Mann says. “I filled an entire bookshelf for the price I would have paid for just a handful of books anywhere else.”
Over the years, King has handled precious documents and photographs, played host to famous people, and archived invaluable memorabilia. He prefers running things the way he always has, by pen and paper, or with a handshake and a smile. You may think his preferred systems is outdated in a field often viewed as antiquated, and you would be right – at least regarding recordkeeping practices. But something unexpected has happened.
The digital age has brought a renewed interest in actual books. It appears as though clinging to the past has actually saved this business. People are eager to find old texts and to own a piece of history. And that has led to King being uncomfortably forced into the digital age. John King Books has developed a website and a growing online presence with an Instagram page, a rare books database, and a link to a large selection of media coverage. And although you can’t buy a latte on any of the four floors at the warehouse on Lafayette, you can get a ton of books for a great price. If you visit online, you can even order a T-shirt.
John K. King Used & Rare Books
901 W Lafayette Blvd, Detroit MI 48226