Spring commencement for students at my alma mater, Wayne State University, is May 1 in the stadium near my job. Seeing the various college colors posted all about got me thinking about my school days and summer vacations and (bing!) my recent indie bookstore visit.
I don’t know what you did during your summer vacations as a kid (please share with a comment), but between short family vacations, camp, pick-up kickball games, piano lessons, and every attempt at loafing around, I had homework. Not the kind assigned by schools hoping to keep their students’ minds engaged during the nearly three months of downtime. Worse: My homework was internally assigned; it came from my mother.
She was a schoolteacher, a reading specialist specifically. The assignments started when she discovered I did not know the state capitals. There was some scolding and finger wagging before she declared she would test me on the information that August. If I didn’t know it, she explained, she would ground me. A few years later, when I was 12 or 13, I got the summer assignment that changed my life; my mother handed me Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and explained I would read it and write a book report by August, or I would be grounded. You see how this worked, right?
And worked it did. I have been an avid reader ever since.
I was reminded of this book report and my summer adventures with Scout, Jem, Boo, and Dill upon a recent visit to John K. King Used and Rare Books in Detroit. Have you been? If not, then, oh my, you are in for an adventure. I thought John King was a booklover’s dream prior to my recent visit, as I have been going there since my dad took me as a child. So it came as no surprise earlier this year when Business Insider declared it the No. 2 bookstore in the world. However, my latest visit—I swear I heard angels singing when we walked through this unfamiliar set of doors—made me wonder why it wasn’t No. 1.
Correct me if I am wrong (I’m sure some out there will remember), but when I was a child—or so I thought—John King’s rare book collection was in a small room in the back of the first floor of the four-story structure. Yet when I was wandering recently with little purpose other than to soak in that old book mildew and sweet stench of knowledge, I looked for that rare book room to no avail. So I inquired. The pleasant salespeople explained that seeing the rare book collection required an appointment. Sadly, I did not have one. I explained my love of books and my family history with them—as if they would care—neglecting to mention, however, that if there were a Book Buyers Anonymous my brother would need to be its first member.
Thankfully, they responded to my plea (I was this close to begging) and a friendly, albeit cautious, woman named Toni came by to lend a hand. She guided my significant other and me to the building next door; my excitement at seeing the small stash of collectibles grew with every step. After asking what types of books I was looking for, she opened the steel door and led us up several flights of stairs into, well, heaven. Seeing as books and those who reside on the pages in them never die, this could only be described as a book afterlife. The first room we saw was massive and filled with leather-bound titles of all types, shelved, and stacked and stored, and just plain well kept. I wound up purchasing a half-month’s rent worth of books, most as gifts. Toni became less cautious; while there, she introduced us to an inscribed and signed edition of Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Right beside it: Lee’s Mockingbird.
In addition to classic literature, John King boasts every imaginable topic in the four floors of books in its regular retail space as well as the building behind it. It is truly a book lovers’ nirvana. Now, my brother may not be the only one in the family with a problem. Where is your book haven?
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