Exclusive Tribute: In Nine Kinds of Pain: Detroit Author LENNY FRITZ Died of Cancer But His Legacy Of Inadvertently Creating a Singular Genre of Gritty Detroitica Lives on!

Exclusive Tribute: In Nine Kinds of Pain: Detroit Author LENNY FRITZ Died of Cancer But His Legacy Of Inadvertently Creating a Singular Genre of Gritty Detroitica Lives on!

Lenny Fritz, author & illustrator from Southwest Detroit

I remember Lenny Fritz vividly. He was a big dude who looked intimidating and whose peripheral manifestation evoked possibilities of an outlaw biker or a club bouncer to those who didn’t know him.

In actuality, Lenny was a fun, cool, extremely creative and hilarious individual. He lived down the street from my family’s house on Springwells Street in Southwest Detroit.

His family, the Fritz’s, grew up with my family, the Place’s. The Fritz’s lived at 2655 Springwells Street and my family lives at 2606 Springwells Street. Lenny was a popular figure around the neighborhood due to his good nature and artistic abilities.

Graciously, his mother Mary Anne Fritz and sister Patty Saenz (pronounced ‘signs’) sat down with me recently at Patty’s home Downriver to discuss the uniqueness of Lenny and the enduring impact of his work.

Biography

Southwest Detroit

Lenny was the middle child. He had an older sister Patty and a younger brother Eric.

“Lenny and I were Irish Twins,” says Patty, “We were born one year and five days apart. Lenny was born on June 27th, 1967 and I was born on June 22nd, 1966. He passed away in September 2012 from cancer. June 27th, 2017 would have been his 50th birthday. I miss him so much.”

Lenny went to school at St. Gabriel’s (8118 Vernor) and Holy Redeemer Catholic High School (1721 Junction) in Southwest Detroit.

Lenny Fritz house (2655 Springwells Street, Detroit)

Mary Anne tells us more about Lenny.

Lenny graduated Holy Redeemer in 1985 and went on to WSU. He worked a variety of odd jobs around the neighborhood, including being a janitor at St. Gabe’s and grass cutting at Holy Cross Cemetery. Lenny’s true passion though was writing and illustrating comic books.”

“Lenny was even a Detroit Firefighter for a little while until life took him elsewhere. He was playing basketball in flip-flops in his backyard one day with the guys when he stepped off the curb and broke his ankle. As a fireman, he had the fastest time in doing the stair running exercise drills with 50-pounds of equipment on.”

“Lenny was a regular customer at John K. King Books, a great big bookstore a few miles from the house.”

Exclusive Interview with John King

Exclusive Interview: JOHN KING, owner of John K. King Used & Rare Books in Detroit, internationally voted one of the World’s Best Bookstores!

“He also used to hang out at K-Andy’s Bar (8736 W. Vernor) and Bucks Good Eats on Dix, it’s now the Mexican restaurant Mi Pubelo (7278 Dix). Many of these places factor into his work.”

“On Thursday nights, he used to head up to Beacon Bowling Alley (6735 W. Vernor) and go bowling with his Dad, Uncles and cousins. Detroit was the bowling capital of the world back then.”

Lenny was 6’3”, 250 pounds and at one point he had a Travis Bickle type mohawk that he got from Ralph the Barber. He also sported a ‘To thine own self be true’ tattoo on his forearm that he, Patty and Eric all have.”

“Lenny was great friends with Father Anthony Bologna from St. Gabe’s. Fr. Bologna was legally blind and Lenny would drive him around and take him shopping. They would also go to Sunday dinner in St. Clair Shores at Fr. Bologna’s family’s home. He would pick him up at St. Gabe’s in Southwest and drive him out there. While they were out, a trip to the neighborhood grocery store to pick up Fr. Bologna’s favorite Progresso soup was always a must.”

Lenny’s dad, known as Lennie, was a Detroit cop at the 7th Precinct, located at Mack and Gratiot near Eastern Market. His dad would often come home with vegetables and fruit from Eastern Market vendors and nuts from Rocky’s. He was a cop from June 1967 to September 2007. He finished the police academy on the day Lenny was born. Many of his true tales as a cop are woven into Lenny’s writings.”

“About a month after Lenny was born, the Detroit Riots erupted. The National Guard was camped at Patton Park, Dix and Woodmere Street, tanks and all, right down the street from us.”

Patty & Mary Anne Move Out of Southwest Detroit

Southwest Detroit (photo courtesy of Michigan Radio)

The neighborhood used to be great but it changed quite a bit over the decades and became very dangerous with gangs, burned down houses, graffiti, drugs. It was time to leave. Patty moved her family out of Southwest in 1998 after a 10-year-old kid broke into their car.

“My husband Reuben caught a little kid breaking into our car one day,” says Patty, “We called the police but they never came. So, after a few hours, we went down to the kid’s house and it was some kind of big drug dealing house. His parents just laughed at us, they didn’t care. They didn’t care at all, they didn’t even get up. At that moment, I realized we needed to move to get our baby son Ricky out of there.”

Mary Anne moved out in 2004. She is now living on the island of Grosse Ile.

Lenny Goes to School

Western Michigan Broncos

Lenny excelled academically and was a very well-educated man. In 1998, he received his BA from Norwich University.

Then in June 2002, he got his MFA in Creative Writing from Western Michigan University. A few of his plays were produced by the Drama department. His final project was entitled ‘Wet,’ which is street slang for a joint of marijuana dipped in PCP.

Wayne State University

Also in December 2002, he received his MA in English and Rhetoric from Wayne State University. He was also on staff at Washtenaw Community College and Owens Community College (Toledo) teaching English and Film History. He later secured a tenure position in the English department at the University of Toledo.

Lenny’s Connections with Chuck Palahniuk, Stan Lee & Charles Bukowski

Mary Anne tells us about some of Lenny’s interesting literary and comic connections.

Chuck Palahniuk

“Lenny was a huge fan of author Chuck Palahniuk (pronounced paula-nick) and he wrote to him once. Chuck surprisingly wrote back and they maintained an infrequent correspondence over the years. In Lenny’s copy of FIGHT CLUB, Chuck wrote “To Lenny-May you never be perfect and complete…” and in SNUFF, Chuck wrote “To Lenny-May your every money shot bring a standing ovation.”

Stan Lee

“Lenny submitted artwork to a contest that Stan Lee was a judge for. Stan Lee picked Lenny’s submission as the winner and Lenny got his caricature done by Stan Lee in the Spider-Man Sunday comic strip along with the original signed Stan Lee comic art.”

Stan Lee draws Lenny in a Spider Man Sunday Comic! (October 10th, 1999)

“Lenny and Charles Bukowski were writing buddies in the 1980’s-90’s on and off.”

Charles Bukowski

“After Lenny passed away, I became the recipient of dozens of boxes of his letters and writings.”

Lenny the Writer

Lenny Fritz

Mary Anne tells us about Lenny’s writing habits and contributions.

“There was a network, a brotherhood support system of writers and comic book people that Lenny belonged to, a sort of feedback loop that helped each other out in critiquing each other’s work.”

“Lenny wrote and drew constantly, daily. He generated copious amounts of notes, most of which are written on scraps of paper and napkins. We have boxes full of his notes and sketches.”

Perg illustration for ‘Perg’ comic book series by Lenny Fritz

“Lenny did most of his writing while sitting in a recliner, keyboard in his lap, in his first-floor bedroom on Springwells. While driving, he used a voice recorder to capture his thoughts while they were hot and fresh and would later transcribe them into his computer. I still have his original tapes.”

“While working on his Masters of Education, Collegiate Sports Administration at Wayne State University, Lenny did an internship at the University of Michigan Sports department and out of that grew his long-standing relationship with U of M. Lenny published Krater Quarterly, a nationally distributed literary magazine, from Block M Press. He wrote for the U of M Dekers Blue Line, the booster club for UM hockey. “Deke” means to fake out a hockey goalie. Lenny also did illustrations for U of M which were sold as officially licensed material and merchandise.”

poster designed and illustrated by Lenny Fritz for the University of Michigan

In Nine Kinds of Pain (2011) by Leonard Fritz

In Nine Kinds of Pain (October 2011) Lenny Fritz

In Nine Kinds of Pain’ is a book written by Lenny Fritz. I’m an avid reader with a 2,000+ volume personal library and I’ve never encountered any other book like this one in terms of distinctive styling, unclassifiable-ness and comic book mingling.

Here’s the synopsis from New Pulp Press:

“Baby. She knows how to play the streets of Southwest Detroit. But when her boyfriend entangles her in his life of criminal treachery, she’s forced to go underground to stay alive. Her pursuer? The mysterious Tall Black Man, a cold-blooded dope dealer who believes she’s ripped off his stash. Baby flees to presumed safety in the arms of Father Anthony Costa, a drunken, delusional priest, and Dallas Sharper, a Detroit cop gone off the deep end; she hopes to buy more time to figure a way out. Throw into the mix the Canadian Mafia, some killer cops, and an unyielding city, and you have just another week in the Murder Capitol of the World. IN NINE KINDS OF PAIN is a fast-paced, beat-of-the-street story of torment and redemption, of failure and salvation, that proffers crime fiction at its best.”

The book centers around a group of morally conflicted characters and takes place entirely in Lenny’s old neighborhood of Southwest Detroit. The narrative is interspliced with comic book panels illustrated by Lenny, giving it a graphic novel-eqsue feel. The writing is so good and the situations so bleak and characters so grim that it’s hard to put the book down. After finishing it, you immediately want to re-read it.

This book is not for children. This book is not for people with faint hearts and rosy visions of idyllic settings. This book is for people who want to read about gritty characters and thinly veiled true-life stories written in Lenny’s own distinctive style. The story is not linear and its told in short, violent vignettes interspersed with ‘Here is Wisdom’ narration guides for non-Detroit natives.

Comic book panel by Lenny Fritz

Some of the characters include: Baby the prostitute, Father Costa the delusional alcoholic Catholic priest, Dallas the mentally unstable Detroit cop, Tall Black Man the dope pusher, Jimmy Bible the redneck cop, Frankenstein Anson Davis, etc. All characters are locked into an existential bloodsport of survival of the fittest.

The characters in the book essentially equate being a resident of Southwest Detroit to being an inmate at a prison. Each character is trapped in their own personal prison and all characters are trapped inside the prison of Southwest Detroit, where it is impossible for them to escape from. Escape is impossible because after living there, they cannot function in the outside world.

Living in the nebulous purgatory of Detroit’s Southwest side has made them crazed and ghostly, it has created a unique form of acute insanity, a permanent deranging of the soul, which cannot be gotten rid of. By existing in the realm of Southwest, they have each been robbed of their humanity and turned into quasi-monsters. Remember, this is just a book. Lenny was a die-hard Detroiter at heart.

I imagine that the title ‘In Nine Kinds of Pain’ refers to the multi-dimensional realms of suffering you can live in simultaneously. There were 9 Circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno and there’s 9 Kinds of Pain in Lenny’s Southwest Detroit.

excerpt from Lenny Fritz

Mary Anne offers her recollections of Lenny’s book.

“Around 2000, Lenny started the initial idea for ‘In Nine Kinds of Pain’. It wasn’t titled until after he finished the manuscript.

90% of the material in the book involves real people and true stories from the neighborhood with some minor embellishments.”

“The book was published in October 2011 by New Pulp Press, a publishing house which was based in Colorado at the time. After its release, Lenny did a few book signings in Ann Arbor & Detroit, however, shortly after its release, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in May 2012.”

“Lenny and I lived in Monroe at the time of his illness. Lenny was a professor of English literature at the University of Toledo. He had just completed spring semester classes mid-May and was diagnosed with esophageal cancer at the end of May.”

“While he was in ICU at the University of Toledo Medical Center and unable to speak, we would steady a pen in his hand and he would write in a binder to communicate with us, never once needing to look at the page as he jotted. His body was collapsing but his brain was still true and clear.”

Lenny tragically passed away on September 13th, 2012. It was an overwhelmingly fast death and still difficult to deal with at times. We just want to keep his memory alive. He was 45 years old when he died.”

Throughout his work, Lenny offered many haunting premonitions. His 2000 thesis for Wayne State alluded to September 11th over a year before it happened. And in his book, he spookily alludes to his own death a few times.

Lenny won a Fireball Award from Spinetingler Magazine for having one of the 25 greatest opening lines in crime fiction. The opening line is, “This is Detroit, so welcome to the jungle.”

Throughout the book, Lenny pays illustrative homages to Daniel Clowes, Margraret Kilgallen, Jorge Longaron and Alden McWilliams. In a separate project, Lenny illustrated the cover for Jake Hinkson’s book ‘Hell on Church Street’.

Overall, ‘In Nine Kinds of Pain’ is a fascinating read and would make a great movie. The film would have to be raw, gritty and shot on location to do it justice.

Although it has never been discussed by anyone, I am labeling Lenny’s unique work as the beginning of ‘Detroitica’. Detroitica will henceforth be defined as a literary sub-genre of crime noirs which contain elements of the gritty, erotic, surreal, underworld, criminal and insanity specifically taking place in and around Detroit. The genre was inadvertently created by Lenny Fritz.

Lenny’s Unpublished Book: ‘You Can Kill Anyone’

illustration by Lenny Fritz

Mary Anne tells us about some upcoming projects.

“Lenny was originally going to do a trilogy and he wrote a second companion book called ‘You Can Kill Anyone’. The book is about Jimmy Bible, a character mentioned in the first book.”

“Lenny described Jimmy Bible as “one of those ‘redneck cops’ who can’t seem to draw a line between reality and the video game Grand Theft Auto.” The book is about Jimmy Bible spiraling down but becomes a love story involving Jimmy Bible, Plain Jane Dunleavy, Spanker and other characters.”

“A company called 280 Steps based in Oslo, Norway was going to publish the book in November 2015 but they never did. It was scheduled for release but kept getting delayed as ‘to be published’ and now the company no longer exists. Fortunately, I own the intellectual property rights to all of Lenny’s work and we will be actively pursuing the publication of this book in the near future.”

Lenny also has several short stories that we are going to compile into a book and publish.”

Fond Memories of Lenny & the Fritz’s

Lenny Fritz

Lenny’s mom Mary Anne sold my dad his first car in the 1970’s and Patty has my Aunt Mae’s rosary.

My Aunt Mae & Aunt Dae, two hilarious Italian sisters (real names Amelia & Adele Miglierino), also lived down the street at 2576 Springwells. They had glass bowls of stale candy corn around the house, a dog named Rocky and they used to argue frequently and call each other “Pep” and “dog in the manger”. They used to give my cousin Tim and I coffee and crackers starting when we were 4-5 years old. Coffee, cream, about 20 spoonfuls of sugar poured in from the restaurant-style sugar jar and we would dip saltine crackers in the foul concoction. My Aunt Dae wore a hairnet, terrycloth shorts, slipper socks and would wander the alleys of Southwest Detroit picking dandelions and collecting discarded toys and assorted trinkets. It’s a miracle she was never mauled by a pitbull or bopped on the head. Lenny and his family knew them well.

Patty recalls some fond memories.

“Your Grandma used to babysit us. I remember she would make pancakes in various shapes for us. Then years later, I babysat Renee when your Aunt & Uncle lived over on Wendell. Lenny would do these elaborate chalk drawings with her on the sidewalks.”

“Every summer, our whole family would go to Camp Dearborn in Milford for 3 weeks. It’s a tent village of large wood frame tents with canopies. The tents have beds and bunk beds, they’re very spacious and we would rent 8-10 of them for 100+ people. We have a big family, I have 35 first cousins. While we were at camp, your Aunt Sue “watched” our house for us (aka: she threw parties).”

“At camp, Lenny would organize football teams, The Fritz Blitz v.s. The Fritz Connection. He made t-shirts for the games at Sheridan Sport Shop on Vernor Hwy near our house. Archery, swimming, rowboats, etc, the summer dream. We had so much fun.”

Christ Recrucified Two Thousand One AD

Christ Recrucified Two Thousand One AD (2000) By: Lenny Fritz

Lenny’s master thesis ‘Christ Recrucified Two Thousand One AD’ is 244 pages long and was written in 2000. This engrossing 42-chapter novel is a fictional account of the last week of the life of Jesus Christ.

In the book, Lenny describes it as “I strayed from the known events of Jesus, and created a world in which the supernatural plays a key role in the characters life. God & Satan also play significant roles in the manuscript, battling for control over Jesus and his decision to be executed.”

It is considered a “lost rarity” by fans of his work. If you want to read it, it’s housed at the Wayne State University storage thesis collection at Adamany Undergrad Library in Detroit. To go read it, fill out this storage request form:  https://library.wayne.edu/forms/storage_request.php

Christ Recrucified Two Thousand One AD (2000) By: Lenny Fritz

Final Thoughts

R.I.P. Lenny Fritz

Mary Anne, Patty and Eric will be at the Detroit Festival of books selling copies of ‘In Nine Kinds of Pain’ for $10.00 each.

The final resting place of Lenny is at Our Lady of Hope Cemetery in Brownstown. He is cremated. His ashes are inside a bronze Krater-style urn with black enamel etching. The urn sits inside a polished marble niche.

Friends, family, the city of Detroit and readers everywhere lost Leonard Daniel Fritz too soon. But his legacy lives on.

R.I.P.

Leonard Daniel Fritz

June 27th, 1967-September 13th, 2012

Lenny Fritz

Krater Magazine by Lenny Fritz

Krater by Lenny

Lenny Fritz

Lenny illustrated the book cover for Jake Hinson’s ‘Hell on Church Street’

Lenny’s etching on the front page of the Dekers

Rendering by Lenny Fritz

Rendering by Lenny Fritz

illustration by Lenny Fritz

In Nine Kinds of Pain by Lenny Fritz

 

Exclusive Interview: JOHN KING, owner of John K. King Used & Rare Books in Detroit, internationally voted one of the World’s Best Bookstores!

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.

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!

John K. King Used & Rare Books business card

 

John K. King Used & Rare Books homepage

www.rarebooklink.com

Contact

kingbooks@aol.com

John King’s online store at Abe Books

https://www.abebooks.com/john-k-king-used-rare-books/171666/sf

John King Books (12718 W. Warren, Dearborn) circa January 1972