I had the privilege of sitting down with John Henley, a well-known appraiser of rare books in the Pacific Northwest. He has also been an adjunct of the PSU Book Publishing Program since its inception, teaching the survey course titled The Popular Book in the United States. We talked about his job as appraiser, his Oolie aspirations, and how his love of books—inspired early on by his mother—led him to a career of buying and selling them for Powell’s and The Great Northwest Bookstore.
Q: Let’s start in the beginning; did you read a lot when you were a kid?
My father was a banker, and my mother was a well-known poet, Elizabeth Henley. I grew up with a sense of books and money, so it’s no surprise that I got into bookselling. You monetize things you love. We always had classics around, and my mother read to me and my older brothers all the time. Every night after dinner we’d get maybe one or two hours of TV, and then we’d sit around and my mother would read to us for about two hours. Sometimes it would be a New Yorker article. Sometimes my mother would say, ‘Why don’t we read a story by Tolstoy tonight?’ We spent many a night telling stories.
Q: And that led to bookselling?
I got into bookselling as a teenager. When I was fifteen, I got a job at this place called Wong’s Restaurant, which was located on the Interstate across from the Royal Palms Motel. I would go in every Saturday morning and clean the place, and I got fifteen bucks and a Chinese meal out of the deal every week. Then a friend of mine said there was this thing called an underground newspaper, the Willamette Bridge, the precursor to Willamette Week. I would buy a big stack of those with ten of my fifteen dollars and sell them at Portland State, turning my fifteen dollars into thirty dollars. I knew PSU very well because my mother had taught there, so it was always like a home to me. It’s always been a part of my life.
I went downtown one Saturday afternoon to get my papers, and the Willamette Bridge had been closed up. It was just gone. I wandered into this antique store on 5th and Everett called Finnegan’s, and there was this twelve-volume set of Captain Cook’s Voyages from the late eighteenth century, first edition. I asked the guy how much something like that cost, and he said, ‘What do you got kid?’ I said, ‘Well, I got fifteen dollars’ and he said, ‘I’ll take it, just get it out of here.’ I took it home, and my dad said he thought I bought a really great treasure. So the next week after my shift at Wong’s, I went into Cal’s Books and Wares. This guy was selling Cal a book, and he handed this guy ten dollars for it. Ten dollars was big money in the 60s and early 70s. A college course cost ten dollars. So I thought, ‘I don’t want these Captain Cook’s Voyages, I’m gonna take them to Cal, and if he’ll give me ten dollars each I’ll make a killing.’ I got the books down there, and he asked me where I got them, and I told him the story. Then he said, ‘Every Saturday after you’re done at Wong’s, come here, and I’ll give you money and send you out to buy and sell books for me. If you make money I’ll give you a reward, and if you don’t I’ll pay you some wages.’ So I became a book scout. He gave me a check for six hundred dollars for Captain Cook’s Voyages
Q: Book scouting led to working at Powell’s Books?
Book scouting is how I met Walter Powell. He priced books really low, so I did more scouting there than I did selling. One day he asked, ‘Do you read all these?’ and I said, no, I was there buying. He asked what I do with them and I said, ‘I sell them to other booksellers.’ He said, ‘Will you price books for me?’ and we became fast friends within a week. I became his assistant manager and ran the Rare Book Room. He was a mentor and a dear friend, and though he wasn’t well-read and he didn’t know the value of books particularly, he was a good businessman.
Q: How did you go from Powell’s to appraising?
Powell’s changed, and I was used to the old Powell’s. It became a tourist destination, and that’s okay, but it wasn’t the same. Portland was changing. Powell’s had been a funky, interesting place, and now it’s very clean and straight and there’s not as many used books. The people that worked there had truly been a collection of dysfunctional geniuses. Poets, painters, artists, and writers ran Powell’s, and old Mr. Powell said, ‘I’ll fund it!’ He said, ‘This is like the Ed Sullivan Show, I’m calling it Powell’s after myself, but really people are coming here to see what you are all doing.’ It became a different thing, so I went off and got involved with a used and rare bookstore called Great Northwest.
Q: What are some of your favorite collections that you’ve appraised?
One was the Ray Bradbury estate, because I loved his writings as a boy, and to go through his house and through his things was an eye-opener. Doing Dr. Maya Angelou’s books and papers was likewise very meaningful to me, to hold in my hands books inscribed to her by Malcolm X and Dr. King. In some cases, I’ve appraised manuscripts from the Middle Ages that belonged to English royalty at a time when English royalty was killing itself. For a noble woman, the only private thing she got to own was a prayer book. You hold this and learn about her life. She was the grandmother of Henry VIII, her cousin was Richard II. She was right in the middle of what would later be Shakespeare’s material. It was the time of the bubonic plague. She was right there, and your mind boggles. What a period she was in! Appraising takes you to a time and place.
Q: Do you have any advice for students interested in appraising?
You have to understand markets. There’s an aspect to publishing that is appraising, and that’s profit and loss statements. When a manuscript comes across your desk, the first thing you have to think about is, what is the monetary value of this? It’s a gas to publish great literature, but great literature doesn’t necessarily sell. If you publish Your Day in Astrology or The Krispy Kreme Donut Diet, something that can appeal to people en masse, you understand what you have to do to stay in business. You also want to pick up a backlist and have books that are going to be used in colleges. The rat with the biggest tail is the book you want to get. Take some of our books, like Ricochet River. It’s not selling like it did when it first came out, or when new printings are published, but the tail is long. Ricochet River is a major piece and it works. Everyone loves teaching it. It’s multicultural, it’s interesting material, and it’s a coming-of-age and Americans love coming-of-age stories.
Q: Would you have gone to the Publishing program?
I would’ve loved Ooligan Press and to have been an Oolie. I’ve even fantasized about applying for an old man grant. I’m an alumni and an old man, give me a scholarship. The only problem is that then I’d be a student and I’d have to take my own course and teach myself. I would like to take a lot of the courses, though. All of you [in the program] are getting such an exciting opportunity to learn so much. You’ve got great teachers all across the board. Per [Henningsgaard] and all the gang, they’re fantastic. Dennis Stovall is an amazing person, and he and his wife, Liddy, built the program out of nothing. I’m very proud to be a part of this. The height of my year is to teach. For me, it’s a privilege.