Try to imagine an era in which Powell’s City of Books only had six employees including its owner, Walter Powell. Before it became a tourist destination known around the world, or even sold new books, Powell’s prided itself on its used book selection and its creative, intellectual spirit.
John Henley, a professor at Portland State for the Ooligan Press graduate studies program, was there at the front-lines in the ‘70s. Now a noted literature appraiser, just one of 12 certified in the country, and antiquarian bookseller, Henley got his big break as a teenage book scout in the ‘60s.
As a student at Grant High School, Henley would buy stacks of The Willamette Bridge, a radical underground forerunner to the Willamette Week. He would then sell them on the PSU campus at a profit.
Shortly after The Willamette Bridge’s headquarters were raided and shut down, Henley stumbled upon a 10-volume set of navigation books by Captain James Cook dating back to the late 1700s for $15 from a dilapidated antique store. He’d soon come to find out that they were worth more than $600—accounting for inflation, that’s a value of around $4,000 today.
He resold them to the owner of Cal’s Books and Wares, who was so impressed with his find that he took Henley under his wing as a junior book scout, scooping up deals at garage sales and used book stores around town. Powell’s was one such store that he frequented over the next few years.
Walter Powell inquired as to whether he actually read all of the books he bought from him. When Henley admitted that he resold the books elsewhere, and at a profit, Powell offered him a job.
“He said, ‘Would you like to price books for me?’ I said, ‘I don’t work well for other people usually, but sometimes I do.’ By the end of the first week, we were best of friends. He was like a second father to me,” Henley said.
Employed there for 13 years, Henley’s contributions to Powell’s run deep. He was the first new-book buyer and head of the budding department, among the many other hats he wore. When he started working there, Powell’s was 4 years old and consisted of just three sections: fiction, non-fiction and occult. He championed for a wider selection of books, and helped better establish and organize their used book stock.
As a bookseller and manager at Powell’s, and later at Great Northwest Bookstore, Henley made fast friends with notables like Sen. Mark Hatfield and Ursula Le Guin. When Henley published his own novel The Buchmans in 2001, it was with the encouragement and mentorship of Le Guin.
Since his first exposure to it at 15, Henley’s enduring passion has been the book market.
“I’ve always been interested in the markets for books, how to take these semi-bound things once they’ve been used and make money with them again. Why do people want them? What is their utility?” he said. “I began to study older, out-of-print books to try to figure out why…I think it’s a solvable riddle, but I haven’t figured out the equation yet.”
When the book business tanked in 2008, Henley decided to try his hand at appraising.
“When I first started out, I didn’t know there was as big a need for what I do as there is. I’m only one of 12 certified appraisers,” he said.
His career as an appraiser has taken him around the world and allowed him peeks into the lives of some fascinating characters. He’s appraised the collections of such literati as Ken Kesey, Ray Bradbury and Dr. Maya Angelou. The rarest thing he’s seen was an illuminated manuscript of a prayer book, originally belonging to a contemporary of King Henry II, and valued at well into the millions.
When he isn’t busy jet-setting to appraisals, he does a lot of work locally. He often works on projects for the Oregon Historical Society or teaches at the state’s universities. Oregon-related appraisals are his specialty, and not just when it comes to literature.
“I’m [appraising for] an Oregon filmmaker in January, looking at his collection. He’s a documentary maker of some note who went on to become very famous in that field; not while in Oregon, but he is an Oregonian,” Henley said.
His vast experience and personal history (his mother was an English professor at Vanport College in the ‘50s) led him to a position at PSU in Ooligan Press’ early days. Initially meant to be a temporary position, he’s been sharing his knowledge with students ever since.
His current course, entitled The Popular Book, examines what makes a bestseller in the United States, both in a modern market and since the 1700s. The course encourages students to understand the fine mechanics behind a bestseller, and how to rework a lackluster text like a true editor.
Endlessly encouraging, Henley attributes Powell with the lesson he still models for his students.
“He told me, when you’re wrong, I will back you 300 percent because you need my help. If you’re right, I’ll only back you 100 percent because you won’t need my help,” Henley said. “That was a life lesson and that’s how I treat my students. If they do something wrong, I figure it starts with me, something I didn’t tell them. And that was really the kind of person [Powell] was.”