OUR FAVORITE BOOKSTORES: Detroit's Shabby, Wonderful John K. King Used & Rare Books

By Noah Benjamin-Pollak

My favorite bookstore looks like it might fall down at any moment. The old cliché about not judging a book by its cover is certainly appropriate when that cover is a building that has seen better decades. John K. King Used & Rare Books is a large brick quadrilateral off of the John C. Lodge Freeway in downtown Detroit, Michigan, with fading paint, painted-over windows and a decades-old storefront that still manages to look temporary due to its dented corrugated metal construction—like an aircraft hangar or one of those infomercials for “CHEAP ALUMINUM BUILDINGS!” you see on deep cable late at night.

The building itself was actually once the Advance Glove Factory, but had been long abandoned when Mr. King purchased it. Possibly contributing to its decay is the 600 feet the building was lifted up and moved during the 1940s to make room for the freeway it sits next to. But the general shabbiness of its exterior reflects another truth, that all King’s resources were spent on what is actually important: over one million books (which are spread across this downtown flagship, two smaller bookstores, and a nearby warehouse).

When you go inside, though, the experience completely transforms. You are greeted, upon entrance, by a friendly, knowledgeable bookseller—likely as not, Mr. King himself—and then left to yourself to explore floor after floor of books. The sections are arranged well, but you never know just what you might find.  On my latest trip I returned home with Spalding’s National Collegiate Athletic Association Official Rules for Swimming, Diving and Water Games, a gift for my natant ("swimming" according to another find, a first edition of Hartrampf’s Vocabularies from 1929) girlfriend, and an absolutely darling 1916 Dictionary of Similes that includes such gems as “eager like a mettlesome hound, into the fray with a plunge and a bound.” I made another purchase of a more whimsical nature, a simply horrifying Barber’s Guide to men’s haircuts from the mid-1980s, a joshing gift for a good friend who cuts hair for a living.

Most wonderful of all, I returned with a 1919 history of the British press, Fleet Street & Downing Street, beautifully bound with an introduction in the archaic font and language of an early English broadsheet. I had to leave behind a smashing leather-bound early printing of Moll Flanders, much to my chagrin (it was a very rare book, and not inexpensive). What awaits on the next visit? Only God and perhaps Mr. King know all the secrets that lie hidden within.

Noah Benjamin-Pollak, a Detroit-based writer, is Managing Editor of The National Book Review..