Story and Photo by Joe Grimm

Detroit is known to many for old automobile factories. But bibliophiles know it for another factory. John K. King Used & Rare Books fills a four-story former work glove factory with an estimated one million books.

The exact number is elusive because King, who has been selling books since 1965, does not go for computers.

“We’re old-fashioned,” says King. “No coffee shop. No doughnuts. No couches for people to sit on and drool over the books. Do you want to buy a book someone just ate a doughnut over?”

While his bookstore lacks baristas, it has about a dozen employees who really know books.

Deborah Lee calls herself a “20-plusser” at the bookstore. Before being hired, she was a frequent customer. She sets prices without a computer. Mentors have told her, “A $5 book is a $5 book” and “you’ll just know” the price. 

Lee confesses, “I am an info junkie, but I like my info in a print form.” She sees books as bookmarks in time. “One of the reasons people like books is that info is always changing and history is always expanding, but books show you what someone thought at a point in time.” 

On the store’s fourth floor Tom Elliott, who studied philosophy, can contrast the darkness of Tibetan Buddhism with the lightness of Zen.

King says the books come from estate sales and are carried in by people lightening their bookshelves. The inventory ranges from $1 bargains to treasures.

On Valentine’s Day, he was trying to set the price for a new acquisition. It is a small, handmade copy of the Magna Carta, Britain’s code of law. It has about 100 vellum pages and was made around 1380, decades before Johannes Gutenberg invented movable-type printing.

That’s not a book to eat a doughnut over.

901 W. Lafayette Blvd., Detroit, johnkingbooksdetroit.com

Joe Grimm has bought bags of books from John K. King Books while working down the street at the Detroit Free Press.

Author

As a student, Joe Grimm biked from the Detroit area to Mackinac Island for more bicycling on one of the only places in the United States that does not allow cars. Today, one of his favorite overnight Mackinac resting places is the Island House Hotel. Joe has also written two books about classic Michigan foods: “Coney Detroit” and “The Faygo Book,” coming out October 1. He is a journalism professor at Michigan State University.

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