City of Detroit threatens John K. King bookstore over building banners

John K. King Used & Rare Books with two banners in downtown Detroit.  Steve Neavling/MCM
John K. King Used & Rare Books with two “illegal” banners in downtown Detroit. Steve Neavling/MCM

A banner on the hulking warehouse in downtown Detroit proudly boasts of the bookseller’s international reputation: “Named #2 book store in the world by Business Insider.”

Another banner reads: “Named one of the world’s coolest bookstores.”

But the iconic John K. King Used & Rare Books is violating a city ordinance for failing to get a permit to hang the banner on its building along W. Lafayette, according to a letter from Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration.

If the banner isn’t removed by midnight tonight, the letter warns that the city may take legal action.

The Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department (BSEED) made similar threats to property owners over murals along the popular Grand River Creative Corridor in October before Mayor Duggan backed down.

Mayor Duggan’s office said the city has tried to work the book store, giving them an extension of nearly two months to remove the banners or pay $268 for an inspection fee.

“BSEED has been very flexible with Mr. King,” Mayor Duggan spokesman John Roach told Motor City Muckraker. 

With about 1 million books, the beloved bookstore boasts “one of the largest and strangest collections in North America,” according to online magazine Salon.

The bookseller, which first opened in Dearborn in 1965, moved into its current building in 1983.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.

  • danielduane

    The city administration has again lost its mind over such petty issues as a banner, the wording of which is so utterly benign!

  • Nikolaos Koutsovelis

    the FIRST problem I have with this action is that BSE&ED is allowed to do ANYTHING to ANYBODY before a top to bottom overhaul of the entire department. If any of you posting here have EVER had dealings with this dept. you know that nearly everyone thinks its corrupt to the bone! Now, what makes folks think that way…..Ever do an ACR? (assuming you know what that is)…My client’s have done dozens. they have a very clever trick where a final inspection is done by an inspector different than the one you’ve dealt with to date. this NEW guy sez all the stuff the OLD guy approved isn’t legal….and often this occurs late Friday afternoon. a couple of $$$ usually make the problem all better. SO, FOLKS, here’s my beef. Are these banners a violation of some City ordinance…possibly. BUT…..before tackling this “great affront to the sensibilities of the good citizenry”……has BSE&ED cleared & removed ALL structural, safety & environmental issues currently existing in the City? HELL NO!! Does the City’s costs of legal action make it a sound decision given the status of ACTUAL endemic blight….? HELL NO!! So, WTF?
    As with all ordinances based on subjective opinions & decisions, the problem of enforcement is one of perception – perceived fairness in application. It is the abject stupidity of a move like this one against King that reinforces the perception that the City is corrupt and will NEVER be fixed. the reason for that perception is simple – this “offense” is so miniscule in the greater scheme that enforcement of it perpetuates the perception that the more things change the more they stay the same……Duggan is merely re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic……in short, let’s just scratch the surface and convince ourselves that we’ve done some greater good.
    There is a time for such an action by the City…….this isn’t the time and its completely irrelevant that it may be an actual code violation. NO ONE is going to base a decision on moving to the City as a result of a banner problem at a book store. and there lies the real issue…….that good old perception that the place will always be a shithole because 60 years of doing stupid shit,… 60 years of attacking a symptom instead of a problem took it down the crapper……..and now, we’re doing yet more stupid shit!

  • 1Joshua

    Detroit has a serious literacy problem. Solution? Ban banners on great bookstores. Nice. If you seek a barbarized region, look around you. And leave….

  • Harry Palmer

    Maybe it’s time people realize that Detroit is no longer the “anything goes” city regarding building codes.
    Many people complain about what a “dump” Detroit is, but when the city tries to clamp down on violations, these same people will claim the city is being unreasonable and burdening businesses.
    John King is a great place, a real asset and has been down there during the bad times, but if you are serious about Detroit being a great city again(and I mean this only for the people who want that, not for the usual trolls who just want to post comments and sh*t on Detroit constantly) then you have to allow the city to start setting rules, no matter how petty they seem in the short term.

    • Aiede

      “…you have to allow the city to start setting rules, no matter how petty they seem in the short term.”

      Detroit’s had rules. Lots of rules. For a long time. To the point where one of the key complaints from any business owner or potential business owner in the city is how hard it is to find out what those rules are and to successfully comply with them.

      Sit in any Planning Commission or Council Planning & Economic Development meeting for any length of time and you’ll quickly realize that whatever challenges Detroit has, a lack of rules governing buildings and business operations isn’t among them.

      Personally, I think that a city with as much actual blight as Detroit could stand to do away with some of the rules about business signage and the like, maybe at least outside the CBD. IMO, if you’re one of the few open businesses amidst blocks of blight and you want to fly giant banners announcing your perserverance to the world, then go right ahead.

      • Harry Palmer

        Then streamline the process, get the regulations uniform, and enforce them consistently.
        If you want to start setting differing rules for different areas, you’re right back to where you started. Confusing and unenforceable.

        • Aiede

          It’s not unusual at all for different districts of a city to have different signage codes or other regulations. (Think of historic districts, for example.) We’ll do Renaissance Zones that incentivize businesses to locate in specific areas by virtually exempting them from city and state taxes, why do that then hassle them about signage?

          • javierjuanmanuel

            because its not such a zone, he did not buy it with such an understanding, and it is a violation of the 14 th amendment to not treat all the business’s the same.

    • javierjuanmanuel

      But why just business. Home owners need the same scrutiny.

      There is some real classism going on, people think this is great, but they do not want it applied to the poor old black lady on SS who lives down the street and they know, and she is kind etc.

      Also its not setting these laws, they have mostly existed for about 50 years.

    • Nikolaos Koutsovelis

      You couldnt be more wrong ! This action is beyond petty it has crossed the line of misfeasance by using precious resources to pursue a non-priority matter. When ALL the actual blight is removed THEN the City can spend $$ on shit like this. The premise of your post is out of touch with reality.

  • Rita Bailey

    Come on, perhaps they should be looking at more pressing issues !

    • javierjuanmanuel

      It is pressing. The city should actually be sued by anyone who has gotten any sort of code violation in the last ten years if they do not enforce this stuff.

      It is a violation of the 14th, which you can look up, it has allot to do with race. Many would suggest being against it, would indicate that person is likely a racist. They have to treat everyone the same.

      I think you maybe meant to say, you like the story, or you like the image of it, or the idea of buying books the old fashioned way or any number of nice things. Not pressing is not valid.

      Many people have gotten multiple tickets in the hundreds of dollars to thousands of dollars, and have spend thousands cleaning up graffiti and all sorts of stuff every year, they are wronged if this guy is not held to follow the laws on the books, its very simple.

  • maggiemay

    Can’t believe with all the blight in Detroit they’re worried about a couple of banners on a thriving business. Get over it.

  • Linda Rogers Vivenza

    Oh for flips sake, or more so, thank you universe for unintended publicity

  • javierjuanmanuel

    I do not see a problem with this in theory, it is consistent with other towns zoning laws, and actually lenient. There are metro detroit inner ring burbs where you can only paint your store front from the sherwin williams (i think) colonial williamsburg color collection. Other towns you cannot even have neon open signs etc.

    I just find it curious when detroit wants to enforce a law, and then why certain groups of people object, if they find the business to be something they imagine might be politically or socially similar to them.

    No doubt if this was a catholic church, an republican PAC, a matty mouran business, something like big oil, mcdonalds corp office, walmart office etc, many people who object to this, they would quickly be on board.

    I am fine with them being made to follow the laws, but the libertarian part of me thinks the law should not exist.

    • Zed_Zed

      Do these banners pose some sort of risk? The only thing I can imagine is the risk of them coming off and ending up on the Lodge. If that’s the issue I’m okay with requiring a permit and inspection.

      • javierjuanmanuel

        Doubtful. Do you mean a physical risk ?

        • Zed_Zed

          Yes. If you put up a billboard there are safety codes that have to be met. I wonder if this that the logic behind the permitting requirement for large banners?

          • Taralyn C

            Money grab.

    • HankReardon

      Name the “metro Detroit inner ring burb” where you can only paint your store with Sherwin Williams Colonial Williamsburg colors. Is it Eastpointe? Royal Oak Township? Warren? Ferndale? Ecorse? Hazel Park? I’m very curious where this colorful enclave is.

      • Aiede

        Grosse Pointe Woods says “The department will require you to use only Early American Colors, as recommended by the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.”

        • HankReardon

          Ahhh…I never put them in the category of “inner ring suburbs”. I always thought they were a sovereign country. I am ENLIGHTENED. Thank you so much.

          • javierjuanmanuel

            Whats more inner ring than sharing a border with Detroit?

          • HankReardon

            As I indicated in my followup response, I am enlightened. I appreciate that someone called that to my attention. Have a great day.

          • Aiede

            The Grosse Pointes are the last municipalities in Michigan to run their own municipal courts instead of use the district court system, so there is a certain amount of unusual sovereignty, I guess?

            I don’t know about anyplace else with the paint color thing, I just happened to know about the GPW color ordinance through a family member who had to deal with it once. It’s not unusual for hoity-toity towns to have specific color palettes in their zoning and building codes, I’m pretty sure Birmingham has an “official green” that is the only one you can use in certain applications.

          • javierjuanmanuel

            Troy has something I think, they are big enough dicks and everyone on city council is deluded and likely never owned a small business. Ikea could have been in troy, they chased away a huge tax payer, and something that would bring in millions of people per year with thousands in their pockets ……because ….. wait for it …. they wanted a huge multinational company that does over 30 billion per year in revenue to basically alter their logo just for troy.

            They thought the yellow was to bright, and they did not sign off on ikea being in troy because they wanted a muted yellow.

            Its sounds like something from the onion but its true.

            Ikea right fully said Eff off, our owner has a networth of 30 billion, he could buy this entire town, screw it we will go where we are appreciated.

        • Harry Palmer

          It’s not just paint colors, they have all sorts of rules regarding neon “open” signs, and neon in general… as far as what a commercial business can look like, GP has a long list of regulations.

      • javierjuanmanuel

        Many most towns you cannot erect a billboard, you cannot have a gigantic lit sign, there are cities you cannot put up an awning if you have lettering or a phone number on it.

        Thats why I brought up the politics and perceived social stuff. Many people want to like the local bookstore and say EFF you to a big bank, mcdonalds etc , or somene they perceive as doing “too well” and making “too much money”. Then they want seperate laws to punish them.

        This is not an anti book store law. Its not anti small business.

        It is sorta anti business, but then detroit is very anti business in a whoooooole bunch of ways.

        • Zed_Zed

          I have no issue with these various regs as long as there is some logic behind them and they are uniformly enforced. Was 1001 Woodward required to get a permit? Be inspected?

          • Jordan Smellie

            Yes, and yes. The new banner was supposed to have gone up sooner, but those exact processes caused it to be pushed back three weeks.