In the rare books room at the mammoth store that bears his name, John King reveals a page from the volume that changed the world.
“This put the monks out of business,” King said, with type from the Gutenberg Bible on the desk in front of him.
John K. King Used & Rare Books, in business in Detroit since 1965, houses about 1 million titles in 60,000 square feet of space, and they range from books signed by Ernest Hemingway and Martin Luther King Jr. to the free books in the lobby.
The store survived Detroit’s long economic downturn — and fast-paced downtown resurgence — and the entry of Amazon.com, Inc. AMZN and eBay Inc EBAY into the book market.
King, a witty, knowledgeable bibliophile and businessman who declined to give his age, has an explanation for how his idea became an institution when so many other booksellers disappeared altogether.
“We focused,” he said. “Our mission statement — we didn’t know it existed back then — was to sell good used and rare books. We never really varied from that.”
‘It’s Like Treasure Hunting’
The public building at the bookstore, a former glove factory, has four floors, with hand-picked stock organized into more than 900 subjects. Aproned staff roam the building and communicate by walkie-talkie. Most titles range between $3 and $5 in price.
John K. King Books is a destination, and celebrity visitors are frequent. Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts stopped by the last time he was in town, and Richard Gere filmed scenes for a movie here. King name-checks three former Michigan governors who have been customers: G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams, Jennifer Granholm and John Engler.
“I try not to make anything special for these people,” King said. “We try to treat them like a normal customer so they feel comfortable.”
A second building to the rear, a former elevator factory, houses the rare book room and art annex. King spoke with Benzinga surrounded by rare books, with his dog Sophie joining for the interview.
“It’s like treasure hunting,” King said of the book-buying process. “You go out and find books and they accumulate.”
The collection started in the same way it’s replenished now.
“For every book you buy, you don’t sell that book. It’s not like silver, where you buy at a certain price and you can turn it right over and it’s liquid,” King said. “Books are not liquid. What happens is you get 10 books [and] you sell four or five.”
King’s entrepreneurial journey began with visiting bookstores as a child.
“I had an unconventional childhood, so I ended up in an unconventional business,” he said. “I just started hanging out at used bookstores instead of opium dens, or wherever else people went.”
John King and his dog Sophie in his store's private rare books room. Photo by Dustin Blitchok.
Used Books As A Business
In the time that King’s been in business, Detroit lost about 1 million residents.
“[Due to] us being a destination store, the city’s decline never really affected us,” King said. “We’ve always done — not phenomenal, because it’s a bookstore — [but] people would always come down here.”
In the used book world, eBay’s effect has been to bring prices down, King said.
And Amazon “is just a race to the bottom for prices,” he said. “Everybody’s trying to sell books cheaper than the other guy because there’s so much competition.”
While King lists some scarcer titles on Amazon, his business is almost entirely physical and tactile: Internet sellers can’t offer the browsing experience.
“At a bookstore, when you’re looking at it, you can put the book back if it isn’t talking to you,” he said.
Against the backdrop of e-readers, the struggles of the surrounding city and the bankruptcies of booksellers like Borders, King’s store remains. The answer could be a simple one, he said.
“Books never really went out of style.”
Main image: A floor at John K. King Used & Rare Books in downtown Detroit, housed in a former glove factory. Employees communicate by walkie-talkie in the sprawling space. Photo by Dustin Blitchok.
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