About This Blog

Don't get me wrong. It's not that I'm not on board with the whole ebook thing. I enjoy books in all their formats. But there is nothing quite like a bookstore with its neatly arranged shelves of books and artfully created displays of new arrivals, best sellers, and suggested reading. I especially enjoy discovering small, independent bookstores and have made it my mission to visit and report back on as many of these gems as I can. That is my focus, but there is really nothing that is off limits as long as it is about books or reading. Hope you enjoy my blog and come back often.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

King's Castle, Part II

John K. King
Used and Rare Books
901 W. Lafayette Blvd.
Detroit, MI 48226

What could possibly compare with four remarkable floors containing over 900,000 books? I was about to find out.  (If you haven't yet read Part I of King's Castle, I suggest you do so before continuing with this post. Click HERE to learn how this expedition began.)

And now, the King Books adventure continues . . .

I had completed my purchases and was wrapping up my visit when who should arrive on the scene? It was none other than John K. King himself. How did I ascertain the identity of this notable personage? Let me back up a moment to provide some important background and introductions.

It was Thanksgiving weekend, and my husband Jim and I had traveled to Detroit for a variety of activities--a football game, a concert, a museum visit. Our plans included connecting with our son Culver who was spending the weekend in nearby Dearborn at the home of his girlfriend Alysandra. We had previously met Aly's grandparents and her mom Jennifer. This trip afforded us the opportunity to also make the acquaintance of dad Paul and brother Andrew. This hospitable family would provide not only a tour of downtown Detroit and a memorable dinner at renowned Lafayette Coney, but they, being long-time fans of King Books themselves, were also more than happy to serve as guides on our expedition to the giant store. It was, in fact, Paul and Jennifer who thankfully recognized John King and pointed him out to me.

So with business card in hand, I approached the King of the castle and introduced myself. Expecting a simple "Hello" and handshake, I was taken aback when the jovial owner asked, "Would you like to see the Rare Book Room?" Are you kidding me? Does a bear do you-know-what in the proverbial woods? The castle has a treasure vault, and I had just been invited to see it. Of course my enthusiastic answer was "Yes!" to which the King replied, "Follow me."

Leaving the rest of my party waiting patiently at the front desk, we set off across the old shop floor, through one of those mysterious staff-only doors, into a dark room, to another door, down some steps, through yet another door, outside across a narrow alley, into another building, up more steps, and finally to the Rare Book Room itself where I was left in the capable hands of its director, Tom Heijan, who showed me around the impressive space.

I was immediately aware of the aesthetic differences between this room and the building I had just left. No concrete block and plank shelving here. Instead I was awed by massive, finely-finished oak bookcases topped with beautiful decorative molding. No milk-crate step stools here either. These proud shelves had once held books in historic mansions and noble estates. A milk crate wouldn't do. Instead, a moveable wooden staircase five steps high sat ready to assist on one side of the room while the bookcases on the other side were equipped with a rail and sliding ladder. In sharp contrast to the main building where remnants of the old glove factory create a rustic, industrial  feel, there is a grand and stately atmosphere in the Rare Book Room, housed in what was once an Otis Elevator building. I felt cocooned in a unique world separated from the hectic modernity of the surrounding city, a place where Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and Mark Twain would have been comfortable.

While the exterior walls were lined with impressive bookcases and shelves, the center of the room contained a potpourri of smaller bookshelves, glass cases, tables, book carts, desks, and assorted antique items. Tom mentioned that Mr. King was enlarging the collection to include antiques as well as books. One such item I noticed right away was a beautiful, rectangular wood box about two feet long and maybe ten inches or so high. Tom opened it to reveal an old-fashioned disk music box which sounded even lovelier than it looked. One of the glass cases displayed, in addition to rare books, an original playbill from a production of Hamlet starring Edwin Booth, brother of infamous actor, John Wilkes Booth. Nearby a two-sided dictionary stand enhanced the old-world, scholarly feel, and a menagerie of classical statues and paintings were sprinkled throughout the room. I couldn't escape the feeling that perhaps a thousand untold stories were held within the confines of this historic space.

From a table at one end of the room, Tom picked up a modest-looking paperback which turned out to be a copy of To Hell and Back signed by Audie Murphy himself. For readers who may be too young to know Audie Murphy, he was the most decorated American soldier in WWII; his many citations for heroism included the Congressional Medal of Honor. After the war, he went on to become a celebrated actor eventually starring in the movie version of To Hell and Back, the autobiography of his war experience. To learn more about the life of this heroic and talented figure, click here: Murphy bio.

As it turns out, the Rare Book Room has another Hollywood connection.The space was used to film a scene in the movie, The Double, starring Richard Gere. Although the scene was not a long one, it did require the cast and crew to spend about seven hours in and around the Rare Book Room. Watch the trailer closely (specifically at 1 minute, 42 seconds), and you will get a quick glimpse of Richard Gere talking to co-star Odette Annable, who is standing on the sliding bookshelf ladder. (See trailer at IMDB here.)

I could easily have spent hours browsing this remarkable room, but it was already well past closing time, my companions were still waiting up at the front desk, and I didn't want to wear out the gracious welcome that John King, Tom, and the entire staff had afforded me. As Tom guided me back outside and up to the main entrance where my adventure had begun, I knew that just one visit to this castle was not enough. I would have to visit King Books again.

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