A visit to John K. King Used and Rare Books is a nothing short of a sensuous experience.
The scent of old paper wafts through the air. Dust tickles your nose. The hardwood floors creak. Red pipes give a warm hello from the open ceiling. It’s enough to make a book lover’s pulse quicken as they scan the shelves holding more than a million volumes.
It’s puzzling to figure out where to start.
When you step inside the vestibule of 901 W. Lafayette St. in downtown Detroit, you know you’re in for a treat as you glimpse a rack of books with a sign singing, “Free.” You can’t take them inside the retail area, though, so you resist the urge to snatch them up as you climb the stairs and open the door. Just inside, a staff member (probably store manager Deborah Lee) warmly welcomes you with a friendly smile and an offer to help you with a particular title or category, and a store map.
If you’re smart, you’ll take one because even with an adventurous spirit, you’ll soon realize you need assistance navigating the rows of shelves sprawled over four, 6,000 square-foot floors. It could take days to get through them all, if you’re that ambitious.
A few feet in, you realize this store in the old Advance Leather Glove factory offers far more than books. Dozens of DVDs are offered for $3.50 or three for $10. Boxes of LPs for $2 a piece line the floor in one area, vintage movie posters featuring King Tut and Martin Luther King Jr. hang in a rack, and $2 laminated Ebony Magazine covers of iconic African American entertainers such as Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr., and Nancy Wilson are stacked on a table.
In boxes and stacks on counters, sheet music, cassette tapes, VHS movies, photos, high school yearbooks from the 1940s, and photos from yesteryear all await your attention. It may be wise to get what you want when you’re there; it may be gone when you return.
Business is brisk and offerings are not digitized or indexed, but they are organized and categorized, usually by author’s last name. Titles are not listed on a website.
John K. King, who lives and breathes and sometimes answers the phone, started what is now a Detroit institution 50 years ago. You’re initially surprised to know he’s still around, and that he’s actually somewhere in the store all day, most days (sans Sundays when the store’s closed.)
“I’m always here,” he says. “I’m not off smoking cigars in Havana.”
If you’ve never met or seen an image of him before, you imagine a wizened older gentleman, bent with a bit of age. That image is at odds with the man himself who is spry, harried; a man who tells his age only with a smile.
He’s always got something more to do, so he doesn’t have time for tours. But he makes time for brief chats – sometimes.
On my recent visit, he’s sporting brown corduroy pants and a rust sweater covered with a green military-style jacket. He’s sharp with what’s left of his reddish-grey waterfall of curly hair. Although he’s been cleaning basement flood water, he decides to move some boxes from a chair to give me a place to sit while he slides atop a desk in the lobby to share how he started this humongous bookstore.
With a deadpan sense of humor, he shares:
How did he get all this started?
“I don’t know. I just started. Nobody came down from the mountains and said ‘here’s some books, go sell them.’ You know how you just start things.”
Where did all these books come from?
“Dead people,” he chuckles, and explains that the books come mostly from dealers and estate sales. “Attorneys call for estates, people moving and people who want to get rid of their collections. We’re getting more books now because baby boomers are passing away.”
But King says he’s got a new crop of customers because “parents are teaching their kids ‘here’s a book. It’s not an electronic book.’” Millennials seem to have missed out on the impact of any such tutelage though. “They come in with dazed looks on their faces, but they rarely buy anything,” he laughs.
Bookstores – new and used – have come and gone. Even big box national chain bookstores often can’t survive. King says he figured out the secret to success long ago, and most entrepreneurs and corporate CEOs probably won’t agree.
“You don’t need a computer,” he explains.
For example, he describes a time he visited Borders bookstore to find a book that mentioned his store, and pauses to say, “Lord, rest their soul.” He asked for the title; the store clerk said one copy was available. He went to find it; it wasn’t there. The book was in the store, however. King found it three feet from the register.
“You fail when you become dependent on a mechanical function, it’s stupid,” he says. “We never deviated from our original mission – buying and selling used and rare books – we didn’t go into records, greeting cards, we didn’t go into all this other crap like Borders and Barnes & Noble. We didn’t become a gift store; we remained a bookstore.”
He also owns the Big Book Store at Wayne State University and a Ferndale location. He has given into social media and a website for the rare books and antiques store down the street, where books
are catalogued and can be viewed by appointment only.
While he’s chatting, he’s constantly interrupted by fans of the store who want to meet him. One is Jeremy Crawford, who returned home from Tucson, Arizona, and included the store on his itinerary because it’s “incredible.”
King is a hilarious, humble man. “Yeah, what else am I going to do? Go out and buy a Mercedes and get a 20-year-old?”
Besides, he says, it’s not a business to get rich. He has competition from Amazon, church sales, and the Salvation Army that sells books for a dime. He has to pay his 12-member staff and keep the lights on.
But he never gets tired of selling books.
“I get occupational menopause once in a while, but it goes away. It’s not a permanent menopause. I don’t have to take estrogen or anything.
I’m a used book seller. What else am I going to do?”