*Special thank you to Book Beat & Street Corner Music for allowing us in your stores*
Wayne Kramer probably shouldn’t be alive right now.
A normal human would’ve folded up and exploded decades ago from a pulverizing combination of “Hard Stuff,” like hard music, hard drugs, hard living and hard lessons. Thankfully, however, Wayne is here with us, alive and well enough to tell the ongoing tale of his fascinating existence.
Wayne Kramer and his Detroit rock band the MC5 changed rock music by cranking the dial to totally immersive no-holds-barred high-intensity levels of DNA-mutating volume and they’re also widely credited with inadvertently creating what was later labeled as the genre of ‘punk music’.
While the band itself disintegrated in 1972 in a cyclone of heroin, revolutionary Sinclair politics, disenchantment and becoming alienated and disconnected from each other, the MC5’s music has withstood the brutal and purifying test of time. They came, they saw, they melted faces with blistering full-body knockout attack music and helped forge Detroit’s enduring sobriquet, Detroit Rock City.
It has been said that listening to the MC5 live was like having an out-of-body experience, like exorcising daemonic barnacles and freeing your soul, like a psychedelic journey to pre-birth regression, a glorious stripping away while being thrashed to the point where you suddenly Wake Up, Fully Emerged.
I’m sitting here right now with Brother Wayne Kramer in the back room at Book Beat bookstore.
Wayne is in town from Los Angeles and bookstore owner Cary Loren, formerly of Ann Arbor arthouse band Destroy All Monsters, has kindly given us a fun space to chat.
We’re discussing Wayne’s life and memoir ‘The Hard Stuff,’ which will be published on August 14th by Da Capo Press.
Later this year, Wayne is going on a 35-city tour with his band MC50 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of MC5’s Kick Out The Jams. Their tour will culminate in an October 27th show at the newly renovated Fillmore Detroit.
Wayne is also a prominent solo recording artist and has done countless collaborations with people like David Peel, Johnny Thunders, Don Was, etc.
“Parts of my life have been written about extensively, especially my time in the MC5. Less so my time in prison and my work with Jail Guitar Doors. Just wanted to have a record from my perspective, straight from the horse’s mouth.”
“I wanted to understand myself better and chronicle the realizations. To sort out the order that things happened in and review some of the stupendously terrible things I’ve done in my life. For years, my friends have prodded me to write a book but I could never figure out how to end it, since the story isn’t finished. The arrival of my son Francis, who is turning five soon, the whole life I’ve lived up to his arrival was one life, so now I can begin the other life. If I die tomorrow, I want my son to have a record of my life straight from me not vicariously from news articles.”
“I started writing the book in 2006. Started just casually jotting down thoughts and memories in a notebook. A lot of stuff was in the front of my thoughts and therefore easily accessible. Then I got about forty 3 x 5 cards and put them on a corkboard and created a chronology of events.”
“After a while I had the shaping of what looked like an actual book on my hands, so we engaged an agent and secured a publisher. I’m a musician. Telling stories is my business and lifelong passion and it’s always a pleasure. The book was completed in November 2017.”
MC5: The Motor City 5
Born April 30th, 1948, Wayne Kramer was the founder and guitarist of rock band The Motor City Five, which was later shortened to MC5 in honor of being more in tune with the Detroit auto industry.
Wayne started the band in 1963 at Lincoln Park High School in Lincoln Park, Michigan, a Downriver suburb of Detroit.
At the time, Wayne was the band leader of The Bounty Hunters. He met Fred Smith of The Vibratones and Fred soon merged his band with Wayne’s band into The Bounty Hunters. They played venues like The Crystal Bar on Michigan Ave & Central in Southwest Detroit until changing their name to The Motor City 5 in the Fall 1964.
The MC5 consisted of:
Wayne Kramer guitar, Rob Tyner vocals, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith guitar, Michael Davis bass, and Dennis ‘Machine Gun’ Thompson drums.
“It started off innocently enough with ‘Hey, any kids want to be in a band with me?’ Ultimately, we ended up with the MC5.”
“The MC5 started at Helen and Gregory avenues in Lincoln Park, Michigan. Tyner lived 4 blocks away, Dennis lived 10 blocks, Fred lived 10 blocks in another direction. My Mom’s house was the center for all of us and she kindly let us practice in the basement.”
“Rob Tyner and I could draw. Rob’s friend Gary Grimshaw could draw chrome, the finish on hot rod cars. So, Gary and Rob ending up designing a lot of our handbills and posters, especially the Grande Ballroom ones. Rob was indeed a gifted artist and cartoonist, not many people know that.”
“And yes, it’s true, Rob reinvented everything. He nicknamed Fred ‘Sonic’, shortened our name to the MC5, nicknamed Dennis ‘Machine Gun’, even renamed himself from Bob Derminer to Rob Tyner. He was a very creative man.”
“The MC5 used to play everywhere: school cafetoriums, dances, record hops, bars, clubs, outdoors, indoors, sideways, upside down, you name it, we were there. When you love to play music, it doesn’t matter where you play it. You just establish a good band and put your 10,000 hours in playing your asses off anywhere-anyway you can.”
“The MC5 played 400-500 performances over the lifespan of the band. I was 16-20 years old when all this happened, my formative years. At 19 or 20, you’re pretty crazy since your brain isn’t done growing. You’re basically insane until 30.”
“We all have powerful experiences and changes at that age and to be in the center of larger forces at that time like the youth culture movement, government oppression, phonetaps, the FBI building a file on us (yes, I have a copy of the file), was just overwhelming. I remember when I caught my federal coke case, the officer said to me, ‘Kramer, we got shit on you going back to the Sixties’.
“What set the MC5 apart from our contemporaries is we addressed the audiences concerns directly. Since we all shared the same concerns, we felt it our responsibility to help voice these concerns and voice them LOUDLY.”
“We were a rock band in a time when rock music came of age and we were a part of a community of young people in agreement to reject the established ideas of how life should be. The hypocrisy and corruption we saw was unbearable as a community. We were being forced to fight a war 30,000 miles away when there was no direct threat to the United States. It was illegal, it was immoral and America, which claimed to stand for equal rights, didn’t give equal rights to all citizens, only a chosen select few.”
“And even 50 years ago, we felt and knew that weed was less toxic than the government claimed. We were commenting directly on this stuff and we were the only band doing so heart to heart, face to face. You felt our music, boy, and you could never un-feel it. Hearing the MC5 live touched you deeply and forever.”
“In terms of people considering the MC5 and The Stooges as the “godfathers” of punk music, I can see where you can connect the dots. The Clash, The Damned, The Ramones, etc, when you asked all those early punk bands who they listened to and were inspired by, almost all of them say the MC5 and The Stooges. To me “punk” has always been around, we just didn’t use that expression. Beethoven, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, all those guys were punks in the sense that they had to reinvent music for their generations. It’s important to have your own sound and be original.”
“The MC5 was not frilly, not snobby, not elitist, it’s just in your face, grab you by the throat, rock and roll.”
“MC5 played opening night at the Grande, Detroit’s psychedelic ballroom, thanks to Russ Gibb. The Grande was a magical place.”
“We all lived together in the same house as a band. We lived in Detroit, then we moved to Ann Arbor to a place called the Hill Street House for a while, then we had a house in Hamburg, Michigan on Hall Road. It was not far from Hamburg Lake. Beautiful, remote spread in the middle of 10-acres of wooded land, just absolutely spectacular. We loved it. We were a bunch of maniac musicians. You could run around with no clothes on, shoot guns, smoke weed, do whatever you wanted to do, it was great.”
“Our bassist Mike Davis wrote a memoir about his life and MC5 and many stories in Mike’s book are consistent with mine, at least, the fundamental facts. I don’t blame Mike for some of the stuff that was written. I’m sure I was an absolute nightmare to be around. The bad behavior was rampant and eventually, the MC5’s shared creative vision had disintegrated into drugs. Heroin was all-pervasive in Detroit back then and we were young musicians, so everywhere we went, it was already there waiting for us, in our face, you couldn’t escape it.”
“Rob tried quitting the MC5 for 2-3 years. Every year, he’d make a declaration that he didn’t want to be in the band anymore, but he never left. Finally, he and Fred got into a fistfight, and he said he’d had enough. Our last show was New Year’s Eve 1972 at the Grande. I walked off stage mid-show and that was that. The end of an era.”
The MC5 Eat LSD with Timothy Leary at Tim’s House in California
“On March 23rd, 1969, we played a free concert in Provo Park. Timothy Leary was there, he liked our show and invited us back to his house in the Berkeley Hills.”
“He had all this liquid LSD that we poured into a big bottle of dark red wine and we drank LSD wine with him in front of a roaring fire in his living room, while his mother-in-law was there!”
“The band wanted to go out carousing. I wanted to stay with Leary and have the total LSD experience with the guru and then the funniest thing happened.”
“Machine Gun Thompson and I are sitting in front of the fire with Tim’s mother-in-law, Tim walks in with his wife Rosemary and announces “welp, we’re going to bed, you guys have a good night.” He walks away, Machine Gun and I look at each other and I’m thinking, ‘Whoaaaa. I’m tripping my brains out with Timothy Leary’s mother-in-law’. Then I say to Dennis, ‘Maybe we should go back to the hotel.’ Dennis agrees and he somehow drives us back to the hotel.”
Wayne’s Favorite Authors
“Dozens of favorites. I read a lot. They run the gamut: Philip Roth, Christopher Hitchens, Bukowski, William S. Burroughs, Hemingway, Sam Harris, Luc Sante, etc. My son is going to be five soon and he’s reading some elemental stuff already. I told him that the whole world will open up to you through reading. Plus, you can travel in time through books.”
“The MC5 was formed during our teen years when we were young and trying to break out and establish our own identity beyond our parents, which is important.”
“I had a father that abandoned our family when I was little. I was an angry little boy who grew into an even angrier young man. I thought changing my name to “Wayne Kramer” was the perfect revenge, since he would never share in my glory.”
“Later, in my 40’s, I met my father. He was a community activist in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania and he was in the hospital. We built a relationship, I mean you can’t dial it back and recover what was lost to time, but I got to have a more mature perspective on this man whom I was biologically connected to.”
“He had been a U.S. Marine in the South Pacific during WWII. He came back profoundly damaged and treated what we now called “PTSD” with alcohol, which he said kept the daemons at a distance. It didn’t stop the endless horrors, but it helped create a cloudy buffer.”
“The hole in my development as a boy, not having a model of what manhood is, being left to deal with challenges, responsibilities, dangers without a father was very difficult.”
“My Mother did a great job as a single working mom. She’s my hero to this day. I also had 2 younger sisters. My Mom raised us three kids on her own. Single working mothers are the hardest working humans on planet earth.”
Wayne Helps Iggy & The Stooges Get Signed
“I was responsible for getting The Stooges a record contract with Elektra Records. Danny Fields asked me if I knew any other group like the MC5. I said ‘No Danny, there’s nobody like the MC5. But, you should see our brother band The Psychedelic Stooges.’”
“We loved Iggy and The Stooges, all of us hung out together, got high together, listened to the same free jazz music. Before then, Iggy was a drummer in a great blues band called The Prime Movers.”
“I actually tried recruiting him into the MC5 one time but he left for a brief stay in Chicago with The Prime Movers. Iggy and I are still great friends to this day and I’m proud of how successful he is.”
Wayne Gets Arrested During the Detroit Riots
“In July 1967, we were living on Warren and Forest in Detroit by Wayne State University and we had a telescope in our upstairs window. The Riots kicked off and the cops saw the telescope and thought we were snipers.”
“Next thing I know, my doors being busted down and there’s a U.S. Army tank pointing its canon at our house! It’s in the street, right outside our front door! The cops swarmed in, slammed us down and took us to 1300 Beaubien Street, the Detroit Police HQ. They eventually let us go but it was an experience that stuck with me.”
On Being Incarcerated in America
From 1975-77, Wayne Kramer did time at Lexington Federal Prison in Lexington, KY for selling cocaine. The experience had a profound and negative impact on him.
MC5 bassist Mike Davis, Stooges roadie Hiawatha Bailey, writer William S. Burroughs, actor Peter Lorre, musicians Red Rodney, Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, etc, all did drug time at Lexington.
“Going to prison is a traumatic experience. You are discovering for the first time what it means to not have liberty, to not be free, to be totally under the control of systems and people.”
“You never feel safe. You’re surrounded in very close quarters by dangerous people with mental health issues constantly. You have no power over your own life. The sort of helplessness and hopelessness you experience in prison is impossible to accurately communicate unless you yourself have experienced it directly.”
“The prison experience is embarrassing and shameful and I don’t know anyone whose come out better. Prison has never helped anyone, myself included. It’s a medieval concept that just lives on and on and on and on. 90% of inmates can be held accountable for breaking the social contract in their communities but imprisoning people runs against a sense of fairness, which really doesn’t exist in America.”
Jail Guitar Doors USA
In 1978, London punk band The Clash wrote a song about Wayne Kramer called ‘Jail Guitar Doors’. That song title served as inspiration for Wayne Kramer, his wife Margaret Kramer and his friend Billy Bragg in naming his non-profit Jail Guitar Doors USA in 2008.
“Jail Guitar Doors is a non-profit with a mission to help rehabilitate prison inmates by teaching them to express themselves positively through music.”
“Since my release, I’ve watched the prison population rise for over 40 years. There were 350,000 people in state and federal prisons combined back then. Today, in the United States, we have 2.3 million people in prisons.”
“This tragedy has deeply affected every single community in the country. Sending people to prison is not a deterrent. You come out worse, not better. With Jail Guitar Doors, we try to mitigate the damage by helping the individual rehab through music and change for the better.”
“Just think about it: 600,000 prisoners are released every year. Who do you want standing in line with you at the store? Someone bitter, defeated, revengeful or somebody who has hope and music?”
“Earlier today, we took some local musicians to the Ryan Reentry Center in Detroit to establish a songwriting workshop. Today we wore a song about freedom, we helped inmates there talk about childhood trauma and forgiveness. Doing the work itself is the reward.”
“I don’t ever expect to see true justice reform in my lifetime. It’s like turning the Titanic away from the iceberg. But we will continue doing what we can to help.”
Detroit to Los Angeles
“I’ve been in L.A. for 25 years, it suits my activities. I pay the rent by writing film and TV music. You have to go where your job skills are marketable.”
“Most of the year the climate is spectacular, but it’s been very hot lately. Great community in L.A., lot of friends there.”
“Jail Guitar Doors is based there. We’re on 10 prison yards in California and we have acoustic guitars in 120 prisons in America.”
“I visit Detroit often to see family and friends and play gigs and the city will always be in my heart forever.”
1963-Wayne Kramer forms The Bounty Hunters. Fred Smith merges his band The Vibratones with Wayne’s band.
1963-Gary Grimshaw moves to apartment building 633 Prentis St, Detroit. Michael Davis moves to the same building and Rob Tyner’s girlfriend lives across the hall from him. Mike meets Rob and gradually becomes the bassist for the MC5.
December 1963-The Bounty Hunters play The Crystal Bar (Michigan Ave & Central St, Detroit)
Fall 1964-The Bounty Hunters are re-named The Motor City 5
May 1965-Rob Tyner shortens the bands name to MC5
1966-MC5 move to the Warren Forest neighborhood in Detroit’s Cass Corridor near Wayne State University at apartment (659 W. Canfield)
September 1966-Plum Street (Detroit’s Haight-Ashbury psychedelic district) opens
October 7th, 1966-Russ Gibb opens the Grande Ballroom. MC5 plays opening night.
October 1966-LSD made illegal
November 20th, 1966-MC5 & Velvet Underground play ‘Carnaby Street Fun Festival’ @ Michigan State Fairgrounds, Detroit
1967-MC5 move to Detroit Artists Workshop building and live upstairs (1252 W. Forest) and The Lodge at Warren
1967-John Sinclair morphs Artists Workshop into Trans-Love Energy Collective
April 30, 1967-Trans Love produces Love-In concert on Belle Isle @ Remick Music Shell. MC5 plays for 6,000 people. The Outlaws motorcycle gang starts riot.
Summer 1967-The Stooges live at first Stooge house (1324 Forest Ct, Ann Arbor)
June 9th, 1967-MC5 blow main act Cream offstage at the Grande.
July 1967-Detroit Riots
August 1967-John Sinclair becomes manager of the MC5
Halloween 1967-The Psychedelic Stooges first show ever @ UofM Student Union
November 22nd, 1967-The Who play Southfield High School
November 24-26, 1967-The Fugs & MC5 play the Grande
January 4th, 1968-Russ Gibb finances the MC5 recordings of Looking At You and Borderline @ United Sound System studios (5840 2nd Ave, Detroit). Gary Grimshaw designs the cover. Jeep Holland’s A-Square label releases only 500 copies.
February 23rd, 1968-Jimi Hendrix, MC5 & Soft Machine play the Masonic in Detroit
March 3rd, 1968-The Stooges first play the Grande
April 11th, 1968-MC5’s first-ever show with The Stooges @ UofM Union Ballroom
May 1968-Trans-Love move from Detroit to Ann Arbor’s Hill Street House (1510 and 1520 Hill Street). MC5 join the commune.
July 1968-MC5 play free concert at the West Park bandshell in Ann Arbor
August 25th, 1968-MC5 play Lincoln Park, Chicago during riot
September 7th, 1968-JC Crawford first introduces the MC5
September 21st, 1968-Danny Fields sees MC5 live at the Grande
September 22nd, 1968-Danny Fields sees The Stooges @ the Union Ballroom, Ann Arbor
September 1968-Danny Fields gets Elektra Records to sign both bands: MC5 sign to Elektra for $20,000 and The Stooges sign for $5,000. Elektra is known as the label of The Doors.
October 30-31, 1968-MC5 record debut live album ‘Kick Out the Jams’ at the Grande Ballroom. The Stooges were the kicker act. Free show.
November 1st, 1968-John Sinclair creates White Panther Party based on idea from Pun Plamondon
November 1968-The Stooges move to The Fun House (2666 Packard rd, Ann Arbor). MC5 hang out here frequently. Nico lives here for a bit.
December 12-14, 1968-MC5 plays on bill with Velvet Underground for 3 days in Boston
December 23rd, 1968-MC5 opens for The Crazy World of Arthur Brown @ Olympia
January 4th, 1969-MC5’s Rob Tyner is on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine
February 1969-Detroit’s famous Hudson’s department store refuses to stock MC5’s albums. In response to this, MC5 runs a full-page ad entitled ‘Fuck Hudson’s’ in local magazines The Fifth Estate, Ann Arbor Argus, The Sun. As a result, Hudson’s department stores pulls all Elektra Records albums from their shelves.
March 1969-Creem Magazine debuts
March 1969-Elektra Records drops the MC5
May 1969-John Cale brings The Stooges to NYC to produce their first album
June 1969-MC5 sign to Atlantic Records and get a hefty $65,000 advance
October 18th, 1969-Led Zeppelin, MC5, Grand Funk play Olympia in Detroit
January 15th, 1970-MC5 release their 2nd album ‘Back in the USA’
May 1970-MC5 move from Hill Street House (Ann Arbor) out to Hamburg, Michigan
August 3rd, 1970-MC5 @ Mt. Clemens Pop Festival in Sportsman Park
August 7-9th, 1970-MC5 and The Stooges play Goose Lake Music Festival (200,000 people)
April 1971-White Panther Party dissolves
July 6th, 1971-MC5 release ‘High Time’ album
1972-Rob Tyner and Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith get into a fistfight
December 31, 1972-MC5’s last show ever. Grande Ballroom. Wayne Kramer is so disgusted, he leaves mid-show.
MC5’s proposed 4th album, ‘Live on Saturn’ never comes to fruition.
1975-Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith starts Sonic’s Rendezvous Band
1975-77-Wayne Kramer does time at Lexington Federal Prison. Fellow inmates include Mike Davis and Hiawatha Bailey
You have to hand it to John King. He’s a self-made businessman who built a fifty-year powerhouse of books.
He’s outlasted Borders Books, watched the rise of Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, and survived razor-thin years of the Great Recession. Even with hordes of hipster millennials myopically glued to their smartphones and Kindles, his bookstore thrives and prospers still.
John K. King Used & Rare Books is a Detroit institution. Many people have amassed entire personal home libraries over the years just by shopping here. You can lose an entire day among literally 1,000,000+ books spread over 4 floors and 900 categories housed inside an old glove factory.
John K. King Used & Rare Books in Detroit (photo by Ryan M. Place)
Repeatedly voted one of the top bookstores in the world by numerous publications including Business Insider, CNN, and others, John King Books is a must-visit spot on the Global Bookstore Trail, that grand design connect-the-dots map of outstanding bookstores running in a serpentine pattern across the globe.
Many bibliophiles from around the world have made a pilgrimage here to Michigan’s largest bookstore, to shelves overflowing et infra with spectacular inventory ranging from: standard classics, paperbacks, hardcovers, selective esoterica, illuminated medieval manuscripts written on vellum, woodcuts on china paper, armorial bookplates, books bound in crushed Moroccan leather, old rarities sporting beautifully marbled foredges and endpapers, etc. The dust jacket was invented in 1832 and many early examples are here as well.
Let’s Go Inside
John K. King Used & Rare Books in Detroit (photo by Ryan M. Place)
You enter the parking lot on a blind curve and pull up to a bluish-grayish building with a giant faded glove painted on it, and park at a hard slant in the oddly angled driveway, which overlooks a busy expressway.
You enter the building and ascend into book heaven. That lovely characteristic “old book smell” of lignin acids breaking down in the pages of old books wafts up your nose like a curled finger of smoke in an old cartoon.
Wandering John King’s is a sort of calming, meditative experience and patrolling the old wood floors with you are a dedicated army of a dozen employees in red aprons.
John King walking through John K. King Used & Rare Books in Detroit (photo by Ryan M. Place)
I walk inside and John King greets me. “One thing you should include in your article is we’re the only radio dispatched bookstore in the country. All employees have walkie-talkies here. That, plus I’m blessed to have a great staff of people using those radios.”
“Tom Heitjan (aka: Tom Jr.) the rare book room manager, Toni Caron the office manager, and Darlene Weaver have all worked for me since the 1980’s. Deb Lee, the store manager, has been with us since the early 1990’s. Let’s head to the basement, I got something to show you. Hey George,” John nods at a customer. He knows many customers by name. And there are thousands of regular weekly customers here.
John takes me downstairs and we find Tom Jr. and Steve sifting through hundreds of boxes of books. John is wearing a green Italian army jacket and starts dusting off books with a paint brush.
Thomas W. Heitjan (aka: Tom Jr) the Rare Book Room Manager (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
“We just bought the entire collection of a book hoarder in Detroit. He died, so his heirs sold us his books, everything in his house and then at the end, they asked us if we wanted to buy his actual house along with it, so we did.”
“Everything is always busy. Very seldom can I sit down and have some free time. We did an estate in San Francisco a while back where the woman left a giant multi-million dollar mansion in the Sea Cliff neighborhood. I was called in for the books. When I got there, I found the books abandoned, neglected, covered in rat shit. So I’m up there flinging the rat shit off books, trying to find the buried treasure. Only ended up finding a box and a half of mediocre stuff. Here’s a woman worth tens of millions of dollars and she lived like a homeless person. She also drove an old Buick Century that was full of actual garbage. It was crazy.”
Tom Jr. chimes in, “We also just acquired a rare and highly coveted leaf of the Gutenberg Bible.”
John says, “Oh yeah, we gotta show that to him. Let’s go!”
John King: The Early Years
John King (photo by Ryan M. Place)
“I was born in Detroit and grew up on the Southwest side near St. Andrews Parish on McGraw. I still visit the neighborhood pretty frequently. I have a dog. A white maltese named ‘Sophie’ and I usually take her down to Clark Park or the old Train Station on my bicycle with me since she fits right in the basket. Toni has a dog, too. A shih tzu pug named ‘Charlie Dickens’ and the two dogs get along great together.”
“I’m very glad to see El Club the music venue opened near Clark Park. When I was a kid, that building used to be an old Lithuanian Club. You had to have an actual key to get inside there, since it was a private social club. You’d go in there and it was a private bar with a bunch of Lithuanians drinking. Always some fun immigrants therein.”
“I attended Fordson High School in Dearborn. It’s a really cool castle-looking building. My guidance counselor there was Elsie Freitag. Not only is she the reason I wasn’t a juvenile delinquent but she covered for me when I frequently skipped school to go sell books.”
John King (photo by Ryan M. Place)
“I used to take the bus into Downtown Detroit all the time. Since I was only a kid, I could only go into bookstores in the Sixties. Detroit had about two dozen old bookstores back then. And I thought wow I can make money doing something I love: selling books!”
“I was an opportunist. I didn’t have a corner like a drug dealer. You know, I’ll shoot you if you start selling books on my block (laughs) it wasn’t like that. I was more peripatetic selling books out of the trunk of my 54 Packard. Later, I sold them out of a 59 Cadillac hearse.”
“Back in the old days, it was romanticized having a used bookstore. But the reality is you have to be tenacious. Running a successful bookstore goes by some but not all principles of business. I had no formal business education. Had to learn everything the hard way, had to learn by doing. I made all the classic rookie mistakes and even invented some new ones.”
old store sign from John King store when it was at 214 Bagley Street (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
“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. You know, Damon Runyon type characters. I found them interesting and entertaining and I learned the book trade by watching and through osmosis. There wasn’t a ‘How to Be a Used Bookseller’ book, you just had to get out there and start doing it.”
“Then I went to New York for a little bit to attend college, came back, attended Wayne State University on and off for seven years, selling books the entire time. Now I have no time for anything. I’m busy every day of the year hustling books. I should’ve stayed in school and become somebody and been retired by now.”
History of John K. King Used & Rare Books
Tom Jr. (photo by Ryan M. Place)
John’s current main building, 901 W. Lafayette Blvd., is actually his third location over the years. Tom Jr. fills in the gaps for us:
“This building was built in 1906 by an architect named Stratton. He later married Mary Chase Stratton, the Pewabic Tiles lady. Since he built this place before they met, there are no Pewabic tiles here. Up until 1929 this building was a hat factory. Then it became the Advance Glove Company.”
“When the expressway came, instead of knocking the building down, they physically moved the entire building here. In 1947 this building was put on Alabama gum wood rollers and rolled here from 250 feet down the block. Then in 1981, the glove company went bankrupt and left the building vacant until John purchased it in 1983. We officially opened here January 1st, 1984.”
John K. King’s bookstore when it was at 214 Bagley Street, Detroit
John chimes in:
“Yeah I had two other locations before this one. My very first actual store was in 1971 in Dearborn. It was located on West Warren Avenue at Miller Road across the street from the old Camelot Theater. We were there very temporarily, less than a year.”
“I was there against my will actually, meaning due to the building we were in. A sordid cast of people lived upstairs from us. Drug dealers, thieves, prostitutes, etc, a lot of really nice people. The cops were always coming in. And the very first person to come into my bookstore stole an expensive book. That’s how my bookstore career started. He stole a book on Civil War Regimental History. Him and his whole family were thieves. One of the guys, his cousin, used to get hired to work at museums just so he could steal stuff out of museums over time.”
“By the end of 1971, we had moved to the Michigan Theater building at 214 Bagley Avenue in Downtown Detroit and we were there until moving to this location in 1983.The Bagley location reminded me of the old 4th Avenue bookstores in New York City.”
John K. King’s bookstore when it was at 214 Bagley Street, Detroit
“I also still own The Big Book Store on Cass, which we’re closing soon. Opened in the 1930’s, it’s Detroit’s oldest bookstore. It’s been at its Cass location and run by Bill Foulks since 1988. Over the years, we’ve mainly used it as a warehouse for duplicate books. Some German developers approached me recently about buying the building. They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I sold the building. It’s nothing personal, just business.”
“We also own John King Books North in Ferndale. That store opened July 1st, 1988. Tom Jr. used to manage it one day a week for 15 years. Now, Jason Schusterbauer is the current manager. There’s maybe 60,000 books there.”
“We have so many books, we could open ten book stores if we wanted, there’s just no time.”
John King’s Rare Book Building
John’s Rare Book Annex (photo by Ryan M. Place)
Behind the main bookstore, there is a slightly smaller, prairie-style building with some added stained glass windows, which used to be an architect’s office. This building is John’s Rare Book Annex and is not open to the casual window-shopping public.
Thomas W. Heitjan, aka: Tom Jr., has been the Rare Book Room Manager here for years. Tom Jr. grew up on Detroit’s Eastside. He lived one block down from Richard ‘White Boy Rick’ Wershe on Hampshire Street. Tom Jr. has worked for John since 1985. Tom explains:
“We have about 30,000 books here. Toni Caron is our office manager and the Rare Book Annex is closed to the general public due to zoning and security issues. We would love to open it to the public, we just don’t have the ability to make it a tourist attraction.”
John’s Rare Book Annex (photo by Ryan M. Place)
“Once a year, we let the Detroit Historical Society do a public tour here. Otherwise, it’s for private collectors who are vetted and noted and display serious intent. For example, somebody flew in from New York City recently and bought $100,000 worth of books here for their own private library.”
“When we buy collections of books, we sometimes end up with collections of other things like circus posters, statues, etc. That’s how we acquired this interesting Medieval Scriptorium statue from Chicago.”
Medieval Scriptorium statue from Chicago (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
“We do a lot of estate work, at least 2-3 per week. We travel all over the country to source books. John likes the Bay Area, so we’re out there several times per year for book collections. There was one estate in Daly City where no one but us attended. We ended up finding a treasure trove of old movie books signed by movie stars. Some books had 20+ signatures throughout the book.”
Some choice books at John King’s:
leaf from the Gutenberg Bible (c. 1455 AD) photo by: Ryan M. Place
So, about that Gutenberg. John recently acquired a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible (1455 AD). This is an incredibly rare piece. Tom Jr. explains:
“The Gutenberg leaf we have features the Gospel of St. Luke where Jesus is instructing his disciples on how to cast out daemons. Beelzebub is mentioned twice. It’s incredible to actually have a page from the world’s first printed book.”
old books (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
Here is a short of list of some other goodies:
First edition Federalist Papers (1788)
First edition Book of Mormon (1830)
First Great Gatsby
Salvador Dali original drawings
First edition Treasure Island (1883)
First U.S. edition Through the Looking Glass (1871)
First edition On the Road hardcover
Books with fore-edge paintings. These images are hidden until you fan the book.
An entire section of books inscribed on their flyleafs by U.S. Presidents
Several books signed by Henry Ford
Kate Greenaway original painting
Pablo Escobar Gaviria en caricaraturas 1983-91
Pablo Escobar Gaviria en caricaraturas 1983-91 (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
“The Pablo Escobar book, yes this was drug dealer Pablo Escobar’s personal book. It features fun caricatures his friends put together from drug cartoons, his facsimile signature and then his actual signature and fingerprint. Very rare item. A copy not as good as ours, their version only has the facsimile signature, is currently for sale on Ebay in Miami for $100,000.”
Pablo Escobar Gaviria en caricaraturas 1983-91 (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
John’s Rarest Book: the one that got away
The Curtis North American Indian Set
“The one I remember most vividly is The Curtis North American Indian set. We sold that in October 2012 for $1.44 million dollars at Swann Galleries in Manhattan.”
“The set consisted of 20 folios, 722 large photographs on Japanese tissue and 20 text volumes with 1500 smaller photos. The photos were so evocative, you almost wanted to cry looking at them, realizing how beautiful they are and how these people were just wiped out. The photos were printed over a ten year period. It was particularly rare because it was a totally complete set and also, many of the photos were signed by Curtis himself. I miss it.”
“When we can, we try to shake each book to see if any stray ephemera falls out. Sometime in the late 1980’s, our employee Tom Schlientz was shaking out a book one day and some Mark Twain photos fell out. These ended up being personal unpublished photos that were taken by Twain’s friend. The photos featured Twain riding in a wagon with a little girl and a horse. They were taken sometime around the turn of the century in Hartford, Connecticut. We sold the photos.”
Famous Customers at John King Books in Detroit
John King store receipt inscribed by John K. King
John King Books is world famous. The list of well-known people who have been customers here is far too long and varied to include here. People like David Bowie, Hunter S. Thompson, Frank Zappa, Timothy Leary, David Byrne (Talking Heads), Jay Leno, Martin Sheen, Alice Cooper, Governors, Senators, the Levin brothers, Roger Smith head of GM, Kevin Barnes (Of Montreal), Sonny Elliott, Carmen Harlan, Edie Adams, Neil Giraldo, the famous British female impersonator Dame Edna, etc, hundreds of others.
Tom Jr. displaying beautiful fore-edge painting (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
Here are some anecdotes from John King:
“Charlie Watts, the drummer for the Rolling Stones, was just here with his bodyguard who stayed twenty feet from him at all times. Charlie collects jazz stuff and we sold him some great jazz books.”
“Teller the Magician sends us a Christmas card every year saying we’re his favorite bookstore in the world.”
“Former Michigan Governor John Engler got along surprisingly well with my dog. My dog was a Democrat and still didn’t bite him. Engler turns into a mannequin on television but in-person he’s shockingly fun and lively.”
“Actor and Detroit native Curtis Armstrong comes here. He once went on an estate call with me. Curtis was in Moonlighting, Risky Business, the Revenge of the Nerd series, etc.”
“Richard Gere actually shot a movie here inside our store back in 2011 called ‘The Double’.”
The Book Club of Detroit
Great books (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
“A great guy named Tom Schlientz worked for me for about a million years. He took over Charlie Boesen’s bookstore and then worked for me. He was also one of the founding members of The Book Club of Detroit back in 1957. Tom started working for me in the late 1970’s and worked for me right up until his death in 2006. Through Tom, I became a lifetime member of the Book Club of Detroit.”
The Haunting of John King’s Book Store
John King’s Bookstore is haunted (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
Many people think that John King’s Book Store is haunted. Over the years, there have been numerous reports from customers of supernatural & unexplainable phenomena including: footsteps and whisperings in empty hallways, lights turning on and off, feeling like they’re being watched, inanimate objects suddenly moving, doors and cabinets opening and closing, items disappearing and reappearing, feeling something lightly brush past them, unexplainable cold spots, etc .
“Years ago, we bought an estate of a murder-suicide victim. When we moved her books and other objects to the 4th floor, strange things started happening. Lights would go on and off randomly, we would hear bizarre noises, books would fall off the shelves by themselves. We weren’t scared, it was just irritating.”
John King’s Bookstore is haunted (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
Tom Jr. chimes in:
“The paranormal people came in a few years ago and claimed to have located one authentic ghost. They told us that back when this was a factory, a man killed himself on the 3rd floor. He fell in love with a female co-worker. She rebuffed him, so he killed himself up there. And his ghost haunts the 3rd floor.”
John King on The Future of The Book
John K. King print catalog
Many people think that the book itself is doomed by technology, that people are only selling off personal collections and not buying books these days and that online sales have eclipsed regular store sales. According to John King, none of that is true.
“The future of the book is secure. Books have lasted over 500 years and they’ll last another 500. If books were going to become obsolete, why is Amazon.com opening brick-and-mortar stores with physical books in them?”
“Right now, the Baby Boomers are croaking. Some of their subject collecting is fading. Those books that they collected so vigorously are no longer important to the next generation.”
John K. King print catalog
“It’s fluid, everything changes. Except for a few of the enduring classics, people’s tastes are fickle when it comes to books. You grow up with something and it’s in demand several decades later and then it’s gone.”
“Only a mere 10-15% of our sales are online. AbeBooks.com is our favorite online selling platform. We’re still basically a brick and mortar store and that’s where we’re most successful.”
“We discontinued our famous print catalogs about 10 years ago. However, we still have digital catalogs online. Again, we would love to do the print catalogs and could still afford to do them, except we just don’t have the time, staff or manpower to do it.”
John’s Final Thoughts
Tom Jr. and John King on the roof of John King Books with the old Train Station in the background (photo by Ryan M. Place)
“We oftentimes deal with a lot of people who have unrealistic expectations of what their books are worth on the buyer’s market. Usually, it’s some nutty person who tells them ‘Oh, your book is rare, it’s expensive’ and then we have to be the bearer of bad news and give them a reality check. My policy is to be straightforward, to the point and up front about everything right from the get-go. I don’t mess around.”
“Also, a lot of people who should come here don’t come here because they’re still scared of Detroit. Downtown Detroit is safe now, it’s not like the old days. I remember back when we were at the Michigan Theater building and we were paid by a New York City bookseller to deliver a book to a Grosse Pointe customer. His customer could’ve just come down to our store and saved the New York price markup. We have customers who travel here from Japan, France, Italy, and other countries, so locals have no excuse.”
John K. King Used & Rare Books (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
“Most people’s bookstore experiences are limited to going to Barnes & Noble. They only have maybe 10,000 books per store and it’s a confusing store. They encourage employees to be robots who have to look up on the computer every time to see where a book is located in their own store. We don’t need computers here. Each member of our staff is a knowledgeable expert with years of experience. Plus, there are no donuts or coffee here, just books. We have store maps, we’re better organized and have better prices, so come down and visit us, we’d love to see you!”
As you can tell, an entire book unto itself could be written about the history and importance of John King Books. A store that has factored into so many people’s lives over the years, it serves as a major literary conduit, a hub for all those interested in the pursuit of books.
John King thrived and prospered through one of the most economically tumultuous periods since the Great Depression, the Great Recession of 2008-2016 and he did it in the fair city of Detroit, no less! We’ve all been through some serious flak together here over the years.
John King on the roof of John King Books with downtown Detroit in background (photo by: Ryan M. Place)
In 2013, the city of Detroit experienced Chapter 9 bankruptcy, the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Over the decades, since the 1967 Detroit Riots, 50 years ago this year, we’ve experienced massive population loss and devastation. But Detroit is on the rise. Big time. And John King is still here, riding the crest of a new wave of growth and prosperity.
Part of the reason that I personally love going to John King’s is you never know what sort of great books you’re going to find. There’s always something different and the thrill of the hunt is exciting.
It was an honor being able to sit down with John King and Tom Jr. We are grateful for the existence of John King Books and deeply indebted for having such a tremendous resource in Detroit and thankful for all they’ve done for the community over the past several decades.
If you have never visited John’s store, or if you haven’t been there in awhile, do yourself a favor and get your butt down there to buy some great books!