Last week was a sad one at the immense, robin's-egg-blue bookstore that looms over the Lodge Freeway, right off the Howard Street exit. That's because Winky, the store's straw boss, the world's only Maltese terrier mix to survive a dozen years with cerebral palsy, departed to chase woodchucks in the sky on Groundhog Day.
John K. King, who runs the place, is a Detroit original, looking something like a hippie whose father was Gen. George Armstrong Custer and whose mother was Benjamin Franklin. That is to say, he has Custer's hair; Franklin's nose and glasses. A chick magnet, in other words, and a born civic leader.
"I hate fucking Detroit, man," he likes to say, adding, with a grin, "and I am glad Maryann Mahaffey is dead."
Never mind why he hates the late great MM. Fact is, King has done more for his city than most of its politicians, even those few who aren't likely to eventually face felony indictments. He has provided jobs and created a place the famous flock to when they come to Detroit.
Now in his late 50s, King built Michigan's largest used and rare book business from scratch. Today, he has nearly 1 million books on Lafayette, in a second store on Woodward Avenue in Ferndale, and in the bedraggled, slightly seedy and badly misnamed "Big Bookstore" on the fringe of the Wayne State campus.
"Dogs? I hate dogs almost as much as I hate people, man," he told me the first time I met him, which was probably in 1983. I thought that was suspect, after I found some stray was nursing a litter of puppies somewhere in his cavernous store. Later, I found out that some of the women who worked cataloging books in his back office brought their kids to work. "But I hate them, you know."
He did not, however, hate Winky, who as a dog was something else. He couldn't walk, but sort of squirmed helplessly on the ground. He was mostly blind, partly deaf, had a nasty disposition, and barked and growled savagely. Occasionally he tried to bite strangers, or at least me. He was born in a garage in battered southwest Detroit in August 1997, and ought to have been dead within days; his mother rejected him. But somehow, somebody brought him to John.
"I hate goddamn dogs," he said. Then he fed Winky with an eyedropper. The staff took turns feeding the tiny puppy till he could eat solid food. At night he slept in bed with John, and later, with John and his seriously charming lady, Janelle.
The Wink wasn't the first dog King had bailed out of a bad spot. Previously, there was Sparky, whom he fished out of the shrubbery one day, nursed back to health, and managed to get registered as an official rare book expert. Sparky, a scruffy, dark-colored rascal, was bad-tempered too, and may have nipped a customer once or twice, though most deserved it. But he wasn't as special as Winky.
Every year, John King had an exclusive birthday party for Winky. Attendance was by admission only, and those few lucky enough to be invited got fried chicken, growls from Winky, and T-shirts with pictures of Winky on them.
Sadly, last month King was in San Francisco buying books when the urgent call came, and he flew home before he was supposed to do so, giving his airline a sudden infusion of cash. Winky went to the area's fanciest dog hospital, Oakland Veterinary Critical Care.
Thousands were spent. But it only postponed the inevitable. Last week, Toni, at the front counter, was mourning, choking back tears as she directed customers toward used paperback copies of Catcher in the Rye.
Deborah, the store manager, looked even more grim-faced when she had to chase the homeless and deadbeats out. Darlene, who guards the old Michigan Manuals in the basement, seemed sad too.
Word quickly spread among the store's thousands of loyal customers. They posted tributes on the store's website. One woman named Miriam even offered a poem:
You were not a perfect dog,
your ancestry was questionable,
your little body had imperfections.
Your bark was sharp, imperious,
demanding of attention and often ill timed.
But, oh, what spirit, spunk and
stamina you had for a 20 pound dog
OK, so Miriam won't be confused with Marianne Moore.
And what is my point, anyhow? What am I doing telling you about the passing of an eccentric bookstore owner's deformed dog this week, instead of ranting on about Gov. Jennifer Granholm's wimpy State of the State speech, the general failure of state government or the GOP's happy embrace of authentic evil?
Simply this: Detroit, the city the nation loves to hate, is home not only to a lot of ferocious problems, but to an amazing collection of wonderful people and communities. The world in which Winky lived was just one of them. Once upon a time, more of us would have known about places like the world of John King's bookstore.
That's because we used to have newspapers that were locally owned, and thought that at least part of their mission was helping tell their cities about themselves. "Newspapers were once thought to bring communities together. That's not the case anymore," a national expert on the media, Prof. Ed Herman from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, told The Nation's John Nichols.
People aren't reading newspapers much anymore, he added, because by and large the newspapers, now owned mostly by big, out-of-town corporations, aren't interested in them, except as circulation figures they can sell to potential advertisers.
The saga of Winky, the canine with cerebral palsy, and the cranky, eccentric bookseller with a heart, is a good case in point. People love dog stories; always have. This one could be told far more compellingly than I have rendered it here. Everyone in town would have read it and have been talking about it. King, by the way, is an amazing story in himself. He has done a great deal for his city, continuing to live in Detroit despite all the hassles that entails. He's given work to people who were fighting to get themselves back on track. He built a magnificent apartment for himself atop another building he owns, only to have to fight city inspectors and shakedown artists every step of the way.
But no word of it appeared in either Detroit daily ... even though both papers are right down the street from the bookstore, and staffers frequently stumble in on their lunch hours. Story ideas these days, reporters for both papers have told me, "need to come from the top."
Yessir, that out-of-town management knows best. For example, the News + Views section Sunday had a column by Paul Anger, Gannett's installed editor and publisher at the Free Press, telling us that he found traffic jams annoying and had decided that reading was a good thing. Accordingly, he was devoting five full pages of the newspaper to listing the names of people who volunteered to help kids read.
Not five pages in cyberspace; five pages of newsprint, far more than the Freep would ever spend to look at the questionable behavior of Manuel J. Moroun, the owner of the Ambassador Bridge who clearly believes he is a law all to himself, and essentially says so.
This section does have value, however, at least to John King. Some months ago, he rescued a bewildered parakeet he found in the alley. And he just has to put something on the floor of its cage.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]