Conversation With: John K. King
The tale of collector and entrepreneur John K. King is the stuff of a classic American short story.
Founder of Detroit’s longstanding John K. King Used & Rare Books, he has seen his institution endure changing trends, not to mention, a city chaptered with hardships and comebacks. In the course of 50 years, his customers continually return to explore the one million titles stocked on his countless shelves.
Ranked second among must-visit places for book lovers by Business Insider in 2014, Mr. King doesn’t hesitate to share his secret as old fashioned hard work. Myles Herod meets up with the man himself and hears about his journey as the king of his literary castle.
What makes this book business one of the best in the world?
JK: Business Insider has recognized us for what we’ve been doing. Our staff is so great at what they do. They’ve been here for so long and we get a lot of compliments about how our people treat the customers. We have a clientele that’s varied from homeless people getting books for free from the lobby all the way up to famous people. Charlie Watts from the Rolling Stones has been here, Jeremy Irons as well. Jay Leno is a customer of ours. David Bowie, Hunter S. Thompson, and Roger Smith (former head of General Motors) are some others that come to mind. We’ve got a lot of people from the bottom to the top as book collectors.
Any ambitions with being number one someday?
JK: Well, the number one store is in Venice, Italy, which I’ll never get to! No, I couldn’t give a crap about that stuff. It’s nice, and I appreciate what they did, but we’re not in any kind of competition. We do what we’ve done from day one. If people recognize us, fine. If people don’t recognize us, that’s fine, too. As long as they shop here and buy books, that’s what we’re concerned about.
Is there a story behind the building we’re in? What can you tell me about it?
JK: This building was built in 1906 by an architect named Stratton. Up until 1929 it was a hat factory. Then it became the Advance Glove Company. When the expressway came, instead of tearing down the building, they physically moved it. It was put on Alabama gum wood rollers in 1947 and rolled here from 250 feet down the block. Then in 1981, the glove company went bankrupt and was left vacant until I purchased it in 1983, officially opening in 1984.
It’s hard to imagine a bookstore of this size not only surviving but thriving in Detroit. How do you make it work?
JK: Back in the 50’s and 60’s in Detroit, the golden age of Detroit used booksellers, the people who ran the bookstores were almost always very eccentric personalities. I found them interesting and I learned the book trade by watching. By the 70’s, there were probably a dozen-and-a-half used bookstores in the city. People were orientated back then for books. Today, it’s a little different with Amazon and such. A used book has taken on a different flavour. We’ve succeeded because we respect the customer and respect the books. There’s not many left of us. We’re a dying breed.
Why are books important?
JK: They hold mankind’s history. Books are the words people started forming when they got out of the ice age. People started to become literate when they started forming symbols, then into letters and words. Books are the connection to when we first started becoming aware of how to communicate, other than grunting or pointing.
It’s been said that this store and its branches don’t rely on computers. Why is that?
JK: In the old days there weren’t any computers. We’re from that era. We’ve been able to run the bookstore without the Internet. We’re not going to evolve into a computer driven bookstore. I think word of mouth is a lot better for us, and stronger to attract people in here. I think it’s much more effective than someone reading a review of us online.
Are you the best bookstore in Detroit?
JK: We’ve outlasted most of the bookstores in Detroit. When Borders opened up downtown years ago people were flocking down there. The newspaper quoted the Borders manager as saying, “Finally, there’s a real bookstore downtown!” I immediately thought to myself, “We’ve been here for 50 years!” Look at us today. We’ve been here before Borders, during Borders, now there ain’t no Borders.
As a person who works and lives in Detroit, what’s the biggest misconception about the city and its people?
JK: Detroit has always been a great city, even with the way it was declining. All of a sudden, the bad reputation is going backwards. There’s a renaissance. There’s also new people coming into the city. It’s become different. There’s a bunch of young people that don’t have history here. They didn’t grow up through riots, they didn’t grow up through the ghettoization of the city. People who have lived here have been stuck in a rut because they’ve been beaten down so much. Now, people are coming with fresh ideas, fresh faces, fresh everything. We have great culture in this area, always have. We’re part of that scene. We’ve always been part of it.
Why are old books so cherished?
JK: They are a link to our past. People want to have some kind of identity and that’s part of their life. It was part of their parent’s life. It’s like when you go to some flea market or garage sale and you go, “Oh, there’s the exact kitchen table I grew up with! I loved that table!” You know? They can identify with something. So, with books, they’ll identify with something that they read when they were younger. It’s a connection to everything. It helps complete your history when you see things like that.
What do you know for sure?
JK: Nothing is sure. Everything is fluid. You cannot predict anything. Just like this store, we started small and it got bigger and bigger. We ended up with this building, and then another building. I’m here until the end. Unless someone comes along and offers $100 million to build a skyscraper or something. I’m practical.