The city and its King

John King is not usually recognized as such, but he is one of Detroit’s jewels. Now, if you know him, you can imagine what he’ll say when he reads that. If you don’t, let me first explain that he is not a marble building, but a man who looks like George Armstrong Custer trying to be Benjamin Franklin for Halloween, or maybe the other way around.

Every so often the mayor and City Council talk glowingly about Detroit’s “jewels,” often when they want to cut their budgets. By jewels, they mean the Detroit Institute of Arts, the magnificent main library, the zoo and other such monuments to civilization.

But not every jewel in the crown is made of stone, or even government property. John King is the most important bookseller in Detroit. He owns and runs the city’s best and most fascinating bookstore, the huge King Books in the old four-story glove factory that towers above the Lodge Freeway on Lafayette Boulevard.

This place is really a cultural treasure. There is a cheesy neon sign up in a window that says “500,000 books,” but that is a gross underestimate. Want any book, ever published, on anything? Here’s where you ought to start. Want an autographed picture of Franklin Roosevelt or Henry Ford or (shudder) Adolf Hitler, or the Time or Life magazine from the week you were born?

Yeah, he’s got that. What he’s also got is a second building only those in the know get into, behind the main one, where his real treasures are, including incredible paintings and posters, rare first editions, an ornate carved fireplace, collectible curios and a moth-eaten stuffed rooster or two. Yes, John, if not restrained by his classier office manager, Deborah Lee, may ask demure female clients if “they want to see his big red cock,” before whipping out one of these. Delayed adolescence happens.

He’ll also tell you he hates dogs, although he has some undetermined number of them living with him, one of whom, Winky, has cerebral palsy and must wear a diaper.

John lives here too, with the wonderful Janelle, in a gorgeous loft he built on the roof. “I really hate dogs, man, and I hate Detroit too,” he scowls.

Right. King, who is probably 51 but claims to have fought in the Korean War (he won’t say on what side) is actually a treasure who attracts a whole different clientele to Detroit than the casinos do. He employs more than a few area residents, though some in the past have been known to rip him off. One has to occasionally wonder at his sanity for staying in Detroit, however; the city hasn’t made it easy.

When he decided to build the loft, for example, it took forever to get the permits. When he wanted to get cable TV in his apartment he was told that since he was a business, it would only cost him $3,600 to have it installed (No, thank you.) And when he has needed the police on occasion, such as when some derelict crawled over the fence and bled all over everything, “Sometimes they even come the same month you call.”

Still, he’s weathered the storms, and even suburbanites have figured out that his guarded and fenced parking lot is safe; note the razor wire atop the fence, kids.

But he now has a new crisis. Some years ago, he also bought a much smaller bookstore misnamed the “Big Book Store,” which sits on Cass at Antoinette on the northern fringe of Wayne State’s campus. To be fair, King probably never did enough with it, though it has had a steady and loyal clientele, including some students looking for bargains and also comic book collectors; the store also has a restricted adult section.

Recently, however, someone has been breaking out the plate glass window. King’s employees knew who it was and told police. Eventually, King said, after the window had been broken out several times, an arrest was made, but the culprit was soon on the street.

Then, a couple weeks ago, the Big Book Store was robbed. Oh, the criminals only got $90 or so; it happened on a slow Saturday. But John King has about had enough.

“I’m really thinking of closing this place.” After all, his suburban satellite store — King Books on Woodward in Ferndale — runs with few problems, thanks only in part to the security offered by Maggie, who really is the biggest damn cat you’ve ever seen.

That would, however, be too damn bad. So here’s an open letter to King, who probably never will buy those Reader’s Digest condensed books off me now, and to Wayne State University President Irvin Reid’s development team.

Why don’t you work out something for the mutual benefit of both WSU and the bookstore monarchy? Wayne State is committed to making campus more of a community — why not do some things to help a good, funky, college bookstore survive and thrive?

What if Wayne State could do something about seeing that the area around the Big Book Store was better lit and that clients could park on the largely underused acreage around that area? What if King were to agree to fix up the place (you can afford some paint, John baby) to make it more student-friendly; put in a somewhat better or at least easier-to-find inventory, more appealing to a campus crowd?

How about maybe having coffee, and some tables and chairs and a poetry reading event once a month? Wouldn’t this at least be worth a try?

Every city campus anywhere else has just such a bookstore. We need one too, and the last time I was in the home office, there was at least one rooster to spare.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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