Detroit’s fortress of a used bookstore stubbornly refuses to go digital

Dawn Gray
By Dawn Gray April 21, 2018 16:59

Detroit’s fortress of a used bookstore stubbornly refuses to go digital

By Dawn Gray

Not far from downtown Detroit, nestled beside the John C. Lodge Freeway sits a four storey, grey cinder block, industrial building.

Constructed in 1905, it looks like a fortress protecting the many gems that it holds inside.

Inside the colossal edifice, its ambient aroma is even more arresting than its expansiveness — the scent is practically tangible. Testing done by the American Chemical Society attributes the sweet smell to ethyl-benzene, while 2-ethyl-hexanol produces a faint floral fragrance that makes the long, meandering passages feel less like aisles and more like the enchanted paths of a serene labyrinth.

Decomposition has never smelled so good, and the probability of getting lost has never been so alluring.

Try getting that experience off the screen of a tablet or computer monitor.

John K. King Used and Rare Bookstore is an entity of the past, stubbornly yet graciously refusing to join the present. The building itself is more than 100 years old and much of its stock is even older. There is no computerized search system for finding a particular publication, but the walls, aisles and shelves are all labelled with handwritten signs of over 900 categories.

In fact, the most high-tech device in the store might be the walkie-talkies used by the staff to help hunting patrons.

While society seems determined to minimalize and digitize, this colossal store is overflowing with around 1 million big, bulky, physical books – the word minimal sounds silly in a place like this and nothing is digital.

Technology has no place here, because there is simply no room for it. Owner John K. King wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We keep the same exact mission statement as all the old book stores that have been around for hundreds of years. That is: sell used and rare books — and that’s it,” said King.

King himself is exactly the personification of what one would hope for when imagining the owner of a used and rare bookstore. His age can only be roughly assumed by references made to bookstores of the 60s that he visited as a child. An older man of average physical stature, he is slightly jolly and, well, inconspicuous.

That is, until he starts talking – King knows his stuff. So much stuff that his verses and disposition seem to instantaneously dissolve any false sense of the ordinary. He is a man befitting his surname. He would have made a great character in a Shakespeare play, but it seems he was just born in the wrong century. King has seen and done a lot in his time, but getting details might be tough. He is a special type of old-fashioned and impressively slightly stuck in his ways.

“Computerizing involves hiring a bunch of people, paying a bunch of people and then competing with the internet. All of our three dollar books would have to be marked down to a penny plus postage — and that doesn’t even make sense. So it’s better just to keep the system that we have.”

The “system” can be described as a form of organized chaos. Books are literally all over – wall to wall, floor to ceiling and everywhere in-between. Finding a book here is like searching for buried treasure, but the knowledgeable staff somehow seem to know where everything is.

“We have a system that we’ve had from day one and it’s built on the systems that were in used bookstores starting back in the 15th century,” said King.

But a lot has changed in the world of book selling, since the 15th century. In 1454 or 1455 in Germany, the very first book was printed using mass-produced movable metal type. The book was the Gutenberg Bible. It marked the start of the “Gutenberg Revolution” and the age of the printed book in the West.

(A similar technology was already being used in Korea, 75 years earlier to create the Jikji, a collection of Zen Buddhist teachings.)

Today, there are 48 known copies of the Gutenberg Bible; only 21 are complete. Most are in institutions, but the last copy to appear at auction in 1978 sold for $2 million. The other remaining copies have been fragmented into pages — King is the proud owner of one of these pages.

Pre-Gutenberg, the story of the book actually begins on etched tablets, handwritten scrolls, and sheets of papyrus. This eventually led to the binding of books known as codices. These gave way to engraved stamping and press-print, eventually leading to the mass production of the printed book.

Prior to the invention of the printing press, those interested in reading had to be members of an elite class that had access to the limited number of available books.

The number is now, far from limited.

Google Books has an ambitious goal — to digitize all printed material. This process has included an attempt to calculate the total number of book titles ever printed in the entire world. In 2010, Google estimated that number to be 129,864,880 books. More recent studies estimate the number now to be closer to 134,000,000.

The history of the book is clear; those chapters have been written. However, it is difficult to predict the future of the book in this era of fast-paced technological change. Rumors about the death of books have been murmured for years with every emergence of competing media — radio, television, the internet. And then came along the most feared enemy the book had known to date — the electronic book.

In the beginning, e-books had limited success as readers were initially resistant; however, when Amazon released the Kindle in 2007, the e-book became a temporary digital phenomenon and many theorized, in the future, it would completely wipe out the analog book. King never believed it.

“Books will continue to hold their own, well, because people love books. They love the touch, the feel,” said King.

“Real books. You can book mark them. You can read then without a battery. You can drop them and they’re not going to come into little plastic pieces. They’re not going to stop existing and electronic books are not going to take over.”

It seems that he may be right. New data suggest that the worldwide reading public is ditching e-books and returning to the old fashioned printed word, according to recent studies by the U.K.-based Publishers Association, the Association of American Publishers and Booknet Canada.

E-books were once expected to account for 50 per cent or more of total book sales, but they have plateaued far short of that in many countries. Readers who are committed to physical books can breathe a sigh of relief, as new figures reveal that e-book sales are falling while sales of paper books are growing.

One contributor to these paper book numbers is Jerry Zielinski, an avid shopper of physical books and a customer of King’s bookstore.

“I’ve got to have a book in my hand. I can’t imagine reading an e-book and I have no intention of ever doing that. I think books are more important than ever and I don’t want to read anything that I can’t hold in my hands,” said Zielinski.

According to Booknet, last year in Canada, e-books accounted for just 16.8 per cent of total book sales, a decline from 19 per cent a year earlier, while paperback books made up 54.2 per cent of purchases and hardcovers accounted for 23.9 per cent.

Last year in the U.K., sales of consumer e-books plunged 17 per cent, while sales of physical books and journals went up by 7 per cent, according to the Publishers Association.

The same trend is being seen in the U.S. where e-book sales declined 18.7 per cent over the first nine months of 2016, according to the Association of American Publishers. Paperback sales were up 7.5 per cent over the same period, and hardback sales increased 4.1 per cent. And, according to the Pew Research Center, 65 per cent of Americans reported reading a printed book in the past year, compared to only 28 per cent who read an e-book.

It would appear that print books are seeing a resurgence. They are surviving — even thriving — in the age of the e-reader.

As an employee of the bookstore, and self-proclaimed information junkie, Deborah Lee is somewhat of an expert when it comes to book culture. She says she has no concern about the future of the physical book.

“I don’t think the physical book is ever going to disappear. There is value in having it. I always believed that the printed work would exist, because there are people like me, lots of people like me, who still read. And we like physical books, and we like discovery, and we like to be able to trace the footnotes in the books, and we want to be able to figure out where you got the information from — and physical books provide us with that,” said Lee.

“I think books are always going to be cemented in society.”

Lee believes this is because our society is still very tactile. During her work at the bookstore, for example, she has witnessed artists buying art books to be inspired, and novelists purchasing novels by others.

“They want to review the pages they found important, the dialogue they found moving and they find that in physical books. And it’s a lot easier to keep track of it in a physical book. Mark that page and put it back on your shelf and read it whenever you need it,” said Lee.

Lee may not be concerned about books disappearing, but she does have some concern about people finding value in going to a bookstore, as almost all titles are available for purchase online, in either a physical copy or an e-book. Lee says the true value of a used bookstore can be found in the moments of discovery.

“I think that’s what makes it special. One of the reasons that I always came to used book stores and especially this one, it wasn’t the book that I came for that they might or might not have, it was the book next to that book that I might not have known was around. That is why we need entities like large used bookstores to be able to still locate those items, and have that discovery moment,” said Lee.

Going to a bookstore to purchase a book takes time and, in this day and age, time is at a premium. However, that may be the precise reason John K. King Bookstore has managed to stay afloat amid the quicksands of emerging technology. Stopping by this bookstore can turn into an all-day event, and customers seem to be okay with that.

“Our business has always been pretty steady all the way through. We have almost a million, if not a million, books — I count them every night before I go home,” said King, amused.

This bookstore is less of a store and more of a destination experience, complete with the possibility of a quick passing chat with the intriguing Mr. King himself. He is almost always there at the store, sorting through books or setting up plans for his next treasure hunt, to get his hands on another haul of books.

“They come from dead people,” said King, with a hint of mischief. “We just came back from Chicago with a truck load. We’re going to San Francisco tomorrow to pick up some stuff — so we get books from all over.”

According to Lee, her employer is extremely knowledgeable and has been a giant in the book industry for as long as she can remember.

“I think John is phenomenal. He is one of the reasons I decided to sign on here. I wanted a life transition and he offered me a job. I saw it as a great opportunity to mentor under somebody that I considered a genius in the book industry,” said Lee.

“John was the bookman that other bookmen went to pre-internet when they didn’t know what they had,” said Lee.

Another patron of John K. King Bookstore is Miriam Schechter. She often likes to wander the aisles and has an eye for some of the more unusual genres. She believes books play a very important role in our society — past, present, and future.

“Books, they’re precious. I mean, think about the times that we’ve had dictators control our minds. The first thing they did was burn books,” said Schechter.

She has a point.

The burning of books represents censorship and has been carried out by authoritative figures of the past, both secular and religious. Often it has been done in efforts to suppress rebellious or sacrilegious views that have been perceived as posing a threat to those who are in charge.

In some cases, the destroyed books have been irreplaceable and their burning meant a severe loss to cultural heritage. Examples include the burning of books under China’s Qin Dynasty in 213–210 BCE, the burning of the library of Alexandria 49 BCE, the obliteration of the library of Baghdad in 1258, the destruction of Aztec codices by Itzcoatl in the 1430s, and the burning of Mayan codices on the order of Bishop Diego de Landa in 1562.

“When you buy a book, you’re protesting the mind control movements. I want books to be the wave of the future,” said Schechter.

John K. King Bookstore is not only preserving books, but preserving a part of our culture.

The culture of society is documented and embodied in the book. The written culture has had a profound impact on humanity. The use of the book dramatically expanded the written word and the duplication process contributed to massive a rise of literacy in our society.

But, from TV shows and movies to video games and the cell phone — and good old-fashioned real-world activities like socializing or playing sports — books have never gone up against such tough competition for people’s attention.

The battle isn’t really between physical books and their digital counterparts, but rather between books and everything else that’s available to us, the consumers.

The used bookstore is still trying to find its permanent place in the needs of our society. Although e-books appear to be a passing fad, the truth is that perhaps there is no permanent place. Books and bookstores may always be one of those fluid parts of our culture that will continually change and adapt, as we do. One thing is for sure, many physical books will morbidly outlive their owners and used book stores like King’s will always welcome these orphaned anthologies with open arms — or shelves, at the very least.

“We’re doing a service. We’re providing books that would have otherwise disappeared and we continue to give them life — and re-life. And, they live again until the other person decides to sell them or trade them — or they die,” said King.


Dawn Gray
By Dawn Gray April 21, 2018 16:59

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