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, then, later, in Downtown Detroit's Michigan Theatre Building in downtown Detroit. (The Michigan Theatre 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. In recent years, the Michigan Theatre parking garage was featured in the Eminem movie 8 Mile.)
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. A few years ago, 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 there. And in the basement? More books. It never ends!
Over the years, King has built a reputation among book lovers that speaks for itself. Through his retail business and rare book catalogues (he's working on Catalogue #96 at the time of this writing), 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 just plain folk. Among his finds lately 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.
And, over the years, King has played host to a number of big-time movers and shakers, like former Ford Chairman Donald Peterson, politicos U.S. Senator Carl Levin and Michigan Governor John Engler, and media stars like William Safire, Jay Leno 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, three stores (the main store on West Lafayette, a small place in Detroit's Cultural Center near Wayne State University, and one in the trendy suburb of Ferndale), about 20 employees, two dogs and two canaries who come to work every day. His next step? He's being dragged kicking and screaming into the computer age with databases and a web page.
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.