Sentimental scent of used books embraces you at John King
BY RACHEL ZYNEL
OU News Bureau
Nestled on the west side of Detroit’s industrial district, an old glove factory continues to tell stories every day.
John K. King Used and Rare Books now inhabits the former Advance Glove factory. Owner John King, a book and antique connoisseur, moved his collections there in 1983. King opened his first store in Dearborn in 1965, and then moved to the Michigan Theater in 1971. He came to rest at his current address when his collection — about 1 million books — grew too big.
Rare and used books are a passion for King, who said he “fell into” the bookstore business.
“Old books were more intriguing than new books,” he said, “and I picked the path of used books, the least-traveled path.”
According to King, most of the books in his store come from estates, people moving and people trading books. He spends his time looking at book collections, finding things to add to his collection and cataloguing them.
“I’m a hunter-gatherer for the book store,” he said.
The fruits of his hunting and gathering have brought him an antique collection of close to 25,000 books. These antique books are stored in a separate annex next to the main store. But not just anyone can look at such rarities as Abraham Lincoln’s signed military order. Viewing of the Rare Book and Art rooms is by appointment only.
The oldest book — Thomas Aquinas’ 1482 copy of “Summa theologia,” can be yours for only $12,500.
King’s bookstore, which strictly carries used and rare books, is the largest of its kind in Michigan. He described his clientele as a cross-section of culture.
“It adds to the community,” King said. “It’s a bookstore, we hold on our shelves the various ideas, histories — basically everything of mankind.”
In the age of the eBook, print bookstores are becoming a dying breed. According to publishgreen.com, around 100 million electronic books were sold in 2010. Used bookstores may try online selling to stay in business. But for King, that’s not his store – part of John King is the community.
“We have a community base that supports us … some used bookstores have turned to online, I can’t see doing that,” he said.
“We’re not computer-driven. We’re generated by what comes in. We will handle radical literature, mainstream literature, a lot of things that some bookstores wouldn’t think of handling.”
‘Just me and the books’
Part of that customer base, Stephanie Bahorski of Sterling Heights, has been coming to John King for more than a year. For her, the atmosphere of a bookstore is part of the literary experience.
“Being in the store is like being transported to another dimension,” she said. “I lose all track of time when I’m here, walking up and down every aisles, just me and the books.
“Nothing else matters.”
Deborah Lee, store operations manager, understands this overwhelming feeling. She calls herself a “navigator” at the store. According to Lee, it takes more than just a love of reading to work there — you have to be well-read to really help other people find what they’re looking for, even when they don’t know what that is.
For that purpose, each of the store’s four floors has its own manager, overseen by Lee. She said at any given time there are up to eight employees circulating, making suggestions and offering help to customers.
“We don’t all read the same things,” Lee said. “We don’t all study the same things. We all have specific interests, so we celebrate our customers wherever they are.
“Whatever you’re doing, wherever you’re going, we want to help you get there through reading.”
The scent of old books
The novelty of a book is alive at John King. From the customers to the employees, people come to peruse the aisles, standing tiptoe on milk crates to reach the tops of shelves, smelling the sentimental scent of old books.
Lee described the used bookstore as a historic part of the American tradition. She called her work “a labor of love.”
“Most of the time, people have planned to make it here,” she said. “So when they do, we want them to discover how great it is to go to used bookstores. Because that’s the great thing about them — you go there and you discover something that you hadn’t even thought about.”
King said he and his employees know they’re filling a niche for the community. His never-finished task is growing his collection. Lee said she’s always changing displays to highlight new things in the store.
“It’s an adventure each time I visit,” Bahorski said. “You never know what you’ll find. The possibilities are endless and that’s why it’s so exciting. I could easily spend all my time, love and money here.”Tweet
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