John K. King Books, selected as one of Business Insider's "World's Best Bookstores"
John K. King can thank the late Elsie Freitag for his success. Elsie was King's guidance counselor in high school, and she was the one who steered him toward making his passion -- buying & selling used books and antiques -- his profession. Legend has it that Elsie even dismissed King early from school on Friday afternoons so he could set up his table at antique shows.
After graduation, King tried his hand at college in upstate New York. By his own admission, he probably spent much more time scavenging through old barns than preparing for his classes. By 1971, King had established his first store in Dearborn, Michigan, and then, later, in downtown Detroit's Michigan Theatre Building. The Michigan Theatre building is notorious among Detroit preservationists; once an ornate Italian Renaissance-style 1920s showcase, in 1977 the theatre itself was gutted and turned into a parking garage. Over the years, the Michigan Theatre parking garage was featured in the Eminem movie 8 Mile and numerous commercials.
King soon outgrew his storefront in the Michigan Theatre Building. His first solution was to rent empty offices upstairs in the building, sending sometimes befuddled customers up staircases and down hallways with keys in hand searching for the office that held the special collections they sought. It wasn't long (thanks to an increase in his rent) before he decided to buy a building of his own. And, in 1983, King purchased the giant, abandoned, four-story Advance Glove factory building at
901 West Lafayette in downtown Detroit. The 901 W. Lafayette building is as famous as the Michigan Theatre Building is infamous. It had long been rumored that the Advance Glove building had been picked up and moved in the late 1940s to make way for the freeway being built nearby. In 1994, a customer brought in proof: photographs from 1949 of the building being moved some 600 feet to its present location.
Within a few years, King was utilizing all four floors of the building for his retail concern, filling the basement to overflowing with duplicates and books waiting to be processed. Several years later, King bought the office building behind his store, the old Otis Elevator building (occupied by an architectural firm for decades), and set up his offices and rare book room upstairs. And in the basement? More books. It never ends!
Thanks to hard work, King has built a reputation among book lovers that speaks for itself. Through his retail business and rare book link website, King has handled a myriad of books, autographs, archives etc., including the books and papers of the auto barons (from Dodge to DeLorean), authors (John Kendrick Bangs, Zane Grey, etc.), sports stars, celebrities, and other collectors both known and unknown. Among his finds over the years were original photos of Mark Twain which literally fell out of a Twain bio one day, and a small pamphlet from the 1950s (pulled from a box of library discarded ephemera) with a signed presentation from the junior senator from Massachusetts, one John F. Kennedy.
Since he’s been in business, King has played host to a number of big-time movers and shakers: former Ford Chairman Donald Peterson, politicos like U.S. Senator Carl Levin and Michigan Governors Soapy Williams, John Engler and Jennifer Granholm; musicians like Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones and David Byrne of Talking Heads, plus media stars like William Safire, Jay Leno, Dame Edna Everage (not in costume), Ryan Gosling (with Eva Mendes), Ben Mendelsohn, and Teller of the magic team of Penn and Teller who regularly makes books disappear off the store's shelves and reappear in his personal library.
These days King says he's content with having over a million books in stock, two stores (the main store on West Lafayette in Downtown Detroit, and a smaller one in the trendy suburb of Ferndale), about a dozen employees, and two dogs who come to work every day. His next step? He's being dragged kicking and screaming into the computer age with a rare book database, this fancy web page and a social media presence.
What have we learned from John King's story? Well, that your guidance counselor in high school may have been right after all. So, do what John King did for years after graduation: take your guidance counselor to dinner once a year.