Exclusive Interview: JOHN KING, owner of John K. King Used & Rare Books in Detroit, internationally voted one of the World’s Best Bookstores!
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.
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
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.
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.
“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
“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.”
“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.”
“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
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 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.”
“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
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.”
“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.”
“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:
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.”
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
“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.”
John’s Rarest Book: the one that got away
“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 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.
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
“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
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.”
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
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.”
“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
“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.”
“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.
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!
John K. King Used & Rare Books homepage
John King’s online store at Abe Books