In 1965, “it just started with a few books,” says John K. King, whose name wraps around a four-story former glove factory, a cluttered complex of corridors on W. Lafayette in Detroit. “I respected the written word and it sort of developed into this project, and the project developed into a vocation.” King’s million-plus collection of used and rare books has since spilled over into the Otis Elevator building next door, which has become a center for offices, art collections and a beautifully classic rare book room that is perusable by appointment only. Two other satellite locations, in Ferndale and on the campus of Wayne State University, are equally teeming.
“Our staff is extremely competent,” he assures. “You can talk to somebody that’s intelligent that can help you find other things that you didn’t know existed.” These days it’s not the chains that are crushing stores like King’s, but websites like Amazon and eBay, which he reminds me hold significant (and largely automated) control over the used book industry. “There’s a lot of used and rare book dealers that have shut down all over the country… we’re just trying to survive,” he confesses. “It’s a sad time for many of us.
“I just can’t understand how you can read a book in a Kindle,” he admonishes. “What happens when you drop the damn thing? If you drop a book it might fall apart a little bit, but you can still read it… you drop the Kindle and toxic materials fly out of it. A book doesn’t have toxic materials.”
Few gifts compare to an old book and what it can say to someone beyond what’s between its covers. “If somebody’s shopping for Christmas presents, a hundred-and-fifty-year-old leather binding of some favorite poet, I think, would be more unique than going to Barnes and Noble and buying a $6.95 paperback. I mean, it’s not a treasure. A treasure is something that’s gone through a lot of decades and has established itself as being a treasure.” Similarly, King’s buildings full of wealth and history have, throughout the decades, established themselves as containing some of Detroit’s finest treasures, ones eager to be obtained this holiday season.
John K. King Used & Rare Books • 901 W. Lafayette, Detroit • The “Big Book Store” • 5911 Cass, Detroit • John K. King Books North • 22524 Woodward, Ferndale • for hours and info visit rarebooklink.com