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John Henley Oral History Interviews

December 22, 2014 – 3:00p.m.

Video: “Days and Nights in Downtown Portland” . December 22, 2014

Location: Valley Library, Oregon State University.
Interviewer:  Chris Petersen

1:12:30 - Abstract | Biography | Download Transcript (PDF)


Chris Petersen: OK, so this is interview number two with John Henley. It is still December 22nd, 2014. And we have a few kind of fun topics, I think, associated with Powell's Books, that we wanted to chat about before we move on a little bit. Can you tell me about the Lenin book?

John Henley: Oh ok, Lenin, yes. This is the inscribed copy or marginalia discussed copy of Das Kapital, 1873. It was a '77 edition, two-volume set, published in Leipzig. I was book scouting in Wisconsin and my fellow book scout was a Vietnam veteran who had freshly come from the war, definitely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He had changed his name to Zeus. I mean, that's it: Zeus. Kind of a hard-headed guy, but actually something of a scholar and he was also something of a book scout.

So we would drive up around the Wisconsin country roads, going into farms and estate sales, looking for books. And we both landed at this farm that was having an estate sale, and there was a bunch of books in German and many European languages. And both of our eyes fell on this two-volume set of Das Kapital at the same moment. He reached for one and I reached for another – it was two volumes – and we looked at it, and somebody had scribbled in them, very heavily. And I said, "dang, this is a first edition." They would be worth a couple thousand dollars at that time; twenty or maybe $200,000 today, a lot more money in today's value. And I said, "it's scribbled in, it's ruined." And he said, "fine, I'll take it. It's still worth something." And I said, "fine, you can have it."

Some time goes by, I leave Wisconsin. I went to Wisconsin to study a course in Existentialism under Simone de Beauvoir, but she got sick and so I found myself in Wisconsin, kicking around. Had a great time; Wisconsin was a lot of fun. But anyway, I leave and then, sometime later, a few years later, I find myself back and I drive up to say hi to Zeus. Zeus has got a lot of money all of the sudden; he's wearing fancy clothes and he looked great. And I say, "wow, Zeus, things are going good." And he said, "yeah, you know that set of Das Kapital?" and I said, "of course." He said, "that was Lenin's handwriting." I said, "wow!" He had sold it for quite a lot of money; I forget what, but it must have been on the order of twenty grand. Now that would be, again, millions in value. But an awful lot of money and he was doing quite well.

Anyway, a few years ago I did try to look him up and found that he had passed away of pancreatic cancer or what have you. But he was an interesting duck and the book, the set, was one that got away. And it's funny, because he had actually shown it around and someone said, "well, that's Russian – this marginalia." Then they identified it, "doesn't that look like Lenin's signature at the front?" And what had happened is that the farmer who had the sale, years before, had had an old man from central Europe who had been one of his farmhands and who lived in this shack. The man was an old lefty and had – apparently when Lenin heard there was a revolution in Russia, he just hops on a train and goes and leaves everything behind. And some man or men had a sale and this guy bought these books, because he liked them. He may or may not have known that it was Lenin's copy, it didn't matter. But now there's a holder of it now. So that's just the story of how books get around, they do get around. Wisconsin. Wisconsin, man!

Now Lenin probably had several working copies and the Soviet Union may have another one, different people may have them. But this is one and Zeus went to the trouble to check it out. That's the thing about books – the more research you do in them, the better the story you have about them. And the better the story, the higher the price and the faster you'll sell them. If you just look at it as a book and say, "meh, first edition," you're going to get something. But if you're going to say, "oh man, this particular copy," then you can jack up the price and also make your customer feel like you're getting something.


CP: Do you have any comparable stories to that of books that you've found?

JH: Nothing – well, I sort of found that – but I've landed a few good books, something that...nothing that ever made me quite as wealthy. I have purchased collections of books that helped Powell's become quite rich. I purchased books that helped the Great Northwest bookstore become quite rich. But I never, myself, bought a book that put me on Easy Street for any period of time. But I've had some scores, I've found some things I like. Kind of hard to think of all the books that I bought at Powell's, I know that in the year 1999, a friend of mine called me from Paris and said, "John, your pricing is on all the books here."

And I'm right now appraising a collection of books that I had – Hemingway first editions – that I had had over, piece meal, over a period of forty years. And I open each of these books and I see my pricing and I can say, "God, I would have priced like that at this time in my life, and I would have priced the book this way another time," because the way I was pricing books would change, every year, how I would price it. Not thinking a twenty-year view, mind you. It was just like, "oh I should probably underline the zeros so people know that it's so many cents or not." And in other cases, I would put dollars signs and other times I would just put the writing. Sometimes I would write in a certain way and other times you could see I was in a hurry and just sort of scribbled the price. And early on, pressing too hard, so it goes through the paper. And I can say, "oh my, that's one of the early ones." So being told that he saw my pricing in all the various Parisian bookstores cracked me up, because most of the time booksellers will leave someone's old pricing and then they'll put a price of their own somewhere else, but they'll leave that there as part of the provenance.

CP: Are there any books that stand out that you've been especially excited to just be around or to hold?

JH: Oh, the list is legion. The list is legion. I got a Shakespeare's Fourth Folio once, and the way I got that was sheer stupidity slash luck. There was an auction down in Oakland, I think it was a Pacific Book Auction, in fact I know it was. They were having an October sale and they had a collection that was largely L. Frank Baum first editions. And at the time I had a friend, Greg, who worked there and he would send me the catalogs. And I would send in ridiculously low bids with some sort of snotty remark like, "you and your mom" about this and that copy. I mean, I was just teasing. And Chris would enter them in and every once in a while I might win something, but if there was something I really wanted, I would actually call another bookseller in the Bay Area to actually go to the auction and bid for me, to make sure I got it. Mail order bids don't usually win.

But anyway, I bid on everything in this catalog and I put some sort of stupid joke remark to my friend. And then, at the very end of it, was a Shakespeare's Fourth Folio, and it was missing the frontispiece. So I wrote a really long, "how dare you offer something that's like this damaged? Who would ever want that? Your cataloging is way wrong," you know, I was mooning him. The auction starts at 5:00 on that given October, a Friday afternoon. Right at five, when the bidding starts, the Oakland earthquake happens. Everybody leaves the building and the phone lines are down for weeks. They've got one bid on everything in the auction: my bid. I win the entire auction. This semi-truck pulls up to Powell's, "here's your auction."


Well, fortunately I knew who the under bidders or the over bidders were going to be, and I made a few phone calls and I quickly liquidated the collection for a tidy profit for Powell's. But in this was this Fourth Folio of Shakespeare, which had nothing to do with the collection. It's way out of theme. However, I thought it was cool; that was a very exciting for me to have, a Shakespeare early edition. And since that time I've handled all but the Third Folio – either appraised it, bought or sold. So those were exciting. Holding an original Shakespeare edition is way cool; for me, that's way cool.

I've handled, oh golly, there's so many books that I've loved for different reasons. Sometimes it's not because they are really valuable editions, it's because, "wow, I've never seen that." I guess the most exciting book that I deal with is the one that I'm dealing with right now. It's kind of like reading a book. What's your favorite novel? Well, the one I'm reading. That's kind of my pat answer. But I've handled some incredible books. If I had brought my computer, I could show you pictures because I do take pictures of the books that are meaningful to me. And sometimes they are valuable and sometimes they are, eh, you know. Others would say, "I don't know what you see in that."


Currently I'm appraising some books and, my gosh, the prices average around a hundred grand. And they are important books, like early editions of Erasmus and such. I know one book that moved me to tears – actually, very close to it – I was doing an appraisal of the late Jim Kopp, and he collected Utopian literature, and he had all five editions of Utopia. Erasmus wrote Utopia and he wanted it to survive. And this is a book that founds not only science fiction, but Utopian literature. It's the father of, basically, all progressive thought. It's a book that changes western civilization. We have the word "utopia" from it. But it is fiction about how the world could be better, and it sets in motion all of modern political theory. Holding that was a thrill. I was like, "wow!" knowing that this book, this copy, Erasmus could have handled. But not only that, all five – because he wrote it in five different languages; he's a genius, man. And he did it because he didn't know which language would survive. Now, I can't read the Hebrew edition, I can't read the Old German edition. But he did have, of course, the English edition; he spoke English very well. So having that was way cool. I mean, in my hand.

So there are some things that I like. I have also appraised photographs. One of the highlights was doing the Gifford collection right here at Oregon State University. That fabulous four, or so, generational collection of family photographers. And then discovering that old Ben Gifford had sought out Muybridge's plates and finding, "hey, this is a Muybridge!" Or "this is the Modoc Indian campaign, here's the gravesites of Captain Jack. Now I know that Gifford didn't take that, but I think one of Muybridge's guys did those." So I can see these things and your mind goes to great places.

I've always felt that I was a steward of the truth, I was nothing more. I'm not a very good businessman, really; I'm really not. But I've always felt it was my duty to take care of the truth. I minored in Library, but I don't like turf wars of, "this is my desk." I enjoy bookselling world because you can do more damage to keeping truth alive as a bookseller than, I felt, a librarian, especially in the '70s. "This is your desk, this your job, that's all." Bam. "Well, I want to do that."

"No, no, this is your job."

"Well, I'd like to try that."

"No, it's your desk, that's your purview. We've got another person over there to do that desk."

"Well, what if I want to have my customer or client work on this desk and that desk?"

"Nope, they'll have to work with her." [makes exasperated noise]

Whereas when you're running a bookstore like Powell's, and Great Northwest bookstore and now appraising, I can be like a wild dog just following a scent. And I sort of like that freedom. Basically my objective is to preserve knowledge and be a steward of the truth. And whether or not a book has truth in it or falsehood, the fact that it exists is part of the bigger truth. It could be an early edition of Mein Kampf, but it deserves to exist. It's evidence that our fantasies are not always nice ones. So I want to save it. Sometimes our fantasies shouldn't be allowed out but, sadly, history is full of counter examples of that.

CP: Sure.

What comes to mind when I say "duck's blood?"

JH: Oh, you want to hear duck's blood, ok. Retail experiences. Most of my life was spent running – floor managing as well as office managing – various bookstores. Powell's, Great Northwest. And in retail you meet people and people aren't always cools.

Now at Powell's, for a long time, come a big rainstorm, invariably holes would appear in the ceiling and you would lose a few books. And you'd get a bucket and sometimes, if the rain hit the floor and not the books, you'd maybe mop up here or maybe you didn't bother, you know, "the heck with it." Or you'd mop it up but it wasn't really clear.


Well, one night at Powell's, we hear this scream and we go in, and here's a guy laying on the floor and he's got a puddle of blood. And it looks like he has slipped in a water puddle. Now, two aisles down is a physician who's in charge of the emergency room at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland. And he's a customer of mine. And he comes running and he says, "let me look at it, go call the ambulance." When I come back, Dr. Shriver says, [in a whisper] "come over here. His eyes are fine, he's not hurt. I looked for the wound, there's no abrasion on the skin. I do not know where the blood is, but I've taken a sample and there's something wrong with this blood."

Well, in come the paramedics, they take the guy away, and they can't find anything really wrong with him. He's playing whatever, he comes up and [makes moaning noise], you know? Sure enough, within a week, we've got an enjoinment letter, "we'd like to enjoin you in court." Dr. John comes back and he says, "man, that blood is duck's blood."

"What? He's used duck's blood? What the heck?"

Well, eventually it goes to trial. And our witness says, "it's duck's blood. I looked at it, he's totally faking it." The paramedics said, "he's got to be faking, we couldn't find any abrasions for that blood. We have no idea." However, we did lose the lawsuit because the floors were wet and we should have had them cleaned up. Now, he got nowhere near millions of dollars. Basically what he got was lawyers' fees paid by us - fifty grand – but he didn't get a nickel out of it. But what I want to know is, what happened to the duck? Where is that duck? Is the duck ok? Is it at Laurelhurst Park? Where did the duck come from? Did he buy a duck? So I've always been about some horror, you known, bird of America that paid the ultimate price for this.

I have other stories. One of my favorites is a Great Northwest story. I walk in on a Monday morning, I start coming in and, "whoa! What is that smell? It smells like fish. Weird." And I would finally track it down and it turned out that it was in the French History section. On a shelf with some books pushed back, "is that a candle? Did somebody have a candle in here? What the hell?" Well, I told my Sunday staff, "would you please watch the French History aisle?" I come in the next Monday, "ooh, what a smell!" And I would go right back and, "did you guys not see anything?"

"We didn't see anybody there."

Alright, these are my staff, are they playing a fool on me? Are they trying to get me? "Alright, I'll catch you." So I come in the back door of the place, nobody knows I'm there, and I'm watching the French History aisle. This old man, not one of my staff – fortunately, I guess – comes up, and looks around, and he takes this little empty tuna fish can and puts it up on the French History shelf. He pushes the French History back and then he brings up a little vial of oil and pours it in, and as soon as he does it, I can smell it. Some kind of stinky fish oil. He then reaches down his shirt and pulls out the biggest crucifix I've ever seen on a chain and dips each corner into the wax and holds it up, and then he starts praying.

Now, ok, what do you do? So I go up and I say, "sir, I'm the manager here."

"Oh, hello."

"I'm sorry but you've broken one of our store policies – there's no praying in the French History aisle, you must leave and you cannot come back. We are very strict about this policy; you cannot pray in the French History aisle."

So I walk him to the door and he's quite confused. He says, "well, is there an aisle in here I can pray in?" And I say, "well, I might have let you pray in the English History aisle, but you broke the French, so you're out of here." [laughs]

And then at Powell's one day, one evening, one of my co-workers, a young lady, comes up and she's quivering with fear. She says, "John, there's a crazy guy down in the German History section." Well, sometimes the German History aisle does attract crazy people. So I go down there and I see, flung over the chair, part of a suit; the jacket of like a good $2,000 suit. And here's this businessman, 60s, and he is pulling apart the German, Spanish, and French History sections and reorganizing all these sections. And I went down and I was like, "what are you doing?" And he says, "well, you don't have a Habsburg History section and I want you to have a Habsburg History section." And I said, "well sir, this is really not something – we didn't invite you to do this. I'm afraid I'm going to ask you to leave, you've created quite a mess here."


"You can't kick me out."

"Yes I can sir, come on. You don't really want to talk to the police, do you sir?"


So I escort him out. The next Monday, I get a call from Mike Powell. "John, we need you in the office, there's a guy in here with a complaint." Fine. So I go in and here's the guy. Mike says, "ok John, tell me what happened." So I said what I saw. The guy looks at Mike Powell and he says, "it's true, I was having a bad night," and I said, "God, I'd hate to see what you do on a good one." And I explained to him, "you know, I had to pay a couple of employees several hours' wages to undo all of that, and this guy wasn't invited to do this." And Mike said, "do you think a Habsburg section would sell?" And the guy said, "I don't know," and I said, "Mike, we've never had one request for a Habsburg section. Never. This is the first time." And I looked at the guy and I said, "you could have just given us a note in the suggestion box. We might have talked about having a Habsburg History section."

So, you know, you get all kinds. One night, very late, closing, a little lady standing in the back and she seems very nervous and she says, "a guy was flashing me." And I said, "you could have just come to the front, man. You don't have to wait." I said, "I can't catch him now, tell him what he looks like just in case he comes in." And she says, "Captain Stubing of the Love Boat." [laughs] So my incident report said, "guy dressed as captain of a Love Line cruiser." You get it all, you get it all.

One time, our security guard caught a Japanese student stealing a book and the student knew that he would be reported to his parents, because the police were coming. And son of a gun if he didn't have a knife and he's starting to carve his guts out right there. And people started crowding around. And so here I am holding his guts together, telling everyone to get out of here. That wasn't pleasant. I got home, Kathy was in the living room, she said, "how was your day?" And then she came out and here I am drenched in blood. "Oh my God! What happened?"

"Not mine."

"Well what did you do that customer?"

"I swear they just arrested him."

"Why are you bleeding?"

"I didn't do anything like that!"

You know, he was committing suicide, or tried to. I don't think he did. I think we stopped him in time. But good God.

But customers also, as wacky as they can be, can be great. One of the things I always liked about the bookstore experience was walking to a section with a customer, and they were requesting something that I knew we had something about, but I didn't know much about the subject. And I would say, "well, tell me about Charles the Fifth" or something, and they would say, "yeah, he was the guy who really took on, he defeated the Turks" and so on, and they're telling you these various and sundry. You would get so much information because oftentimes your customers knew more about a subject than you did. So I found the repartee with the customers most enlightening and I do believe that four years in the book business is as good as master's degree. I really do. If you're attentive and working with the customers, because customers often are brilliant. But, just like all of us, you may know about mysteries and not science fiction, or you may know about the Spanish Empire or whatever. We all have our strengths and that's what I loved about the book business.

The book business is not for anyone who wants to make a serious living, and I've always managed to live on not much, so I'm happy with not much. Appraising pays a lot better by the way, a lot better. Go into appraising – you can actually work short days and get more money than you can in a book business. But it was rewarding work. And again, working for Powell's in its early days, how lucky. And to be told, "here's an infinite budget, let's build a bookstore." Nobody gets that opportunity and I had the sense enough to know that then. And there are places I've worked, even the Great Northwest bookstore, which had zero budget, but it was a challenge to see if we could have a great bookstore with zero budget. And we did and it lasted until the Amazon bubble and the whole computer thing changed it all. But for years, we had a really good going book concern and any money we would make would automatically kind of go back into the business. But we always managed to just kind of keep going and that was a wonderful experience, but never super lucrative. People would come to me, they were tired of their jobs teaching, and they would say, "I'd like to go into the bookstore business. You look like you really love it."


"Well, I absolutely do."

And they'd say, "how much do you make?" And I'd say, "eh, fifteen, twenty grand a year." And they'd say, "I can't live on that." And I'd say, "sorry." Whatever your lifestyle is. "Well, I've got kids." Well, I've got kids. Expectations, what do you want you have? Do you need new cars every few years? A beater is fine for me as long as it keeps running, and maybe a new car once every twenty. It's what are your expectations? In the book business, you can't really be a materialist.

CP: What's been the perception of Powell's by the rest of the book-selling community in the Portland area over time?

JH: Well, when I was starting there, everybody didn't like Walter. He was obviously not well-read, he wasn't part of the book community, he had lots of money, and there wasn't a lot of resources used to learn business. Because the book sellers didn't really like us, they wouldn't share information – they wouldn't send us catalogs, they wouldn't give us advice. Very few, one or two, would, but nobody in Oregon really. We were resented and so Powell's itself became insular, which they are today. They are an island unto themselves, simply because the early booksellers wouldn't do anything. The used and rare book sellers, they didn't like Walter. Or they would say that they liked Walter but their actions spoke differently.

And there was a long period where I would go to a party and they would say, "what do you do?" and I would say, "well, I work at Powell's," and they'd kind of go, "Powell's, so what." It was kind of like, "big deal." Well, now I tell people I was their first manager. "You were their first manager!"

"Yeah, I set up their rare books."

"Wow! You did that?"

Now I tell people I did all these things at Powell's and they're just totally wowed. Everybody's heard of Powell's – "oh, that's the greatest bookstore" – but that was not true probably from about 1971, from its inception, probably to about the mid-1990s. They were considered to be, you know, "so it's a bookstore. What's the big deal about a bookstore?" And then they became legendary and I had some part in that, I did play a part in that. But I'm not the only player, there were other players that contributed, of course.

But now I get the feeling that still a lot of booksellers themselves aren't as wowed by Powell's. They like to make fun of the mistakes in the pricing they make, but they all look for those mistakes and see if they can score. So Powell's has always benefitted other booksellers. It's always been a big boon for booksellers; always has and always will be.

I do worry about their continuance. They are facing a lot of hard issues. They've got a union – that can't be easy for management. Business have to be able to change, literally, in an hour. And a union slows that down. I left before the union got in there, but I don't know – while I'm a fan of the union concept, I don't know that a bookstore is the place for it. But, well, Powell's did bring the union on itself. From what I can tell, they had some management that was abusive, and if you treat people badly, they're going to try to get even. And I think the way that the Powell's employees tried to get even was to be, "ok, you're going to be mean to us, we're going to get a mean union." So they got the Longshoremen, and the Longshoremen are not known for being a gentle union, like the teachers' union or the librarian society. I don't know, the librarians must have a union, but you never see them slashing tires or blockading shipments. Nothing like that. More like they wring their hands and say, "what do we do?" [laughs]

CP: No, not breaking too many kneecaps.

JH: No, that's not the librarian or the Oregon State employees' union method.

CP: I have another note here about "spy house."

JH: Spy house. Oh! Trevor – you've been throwing some questions at him.

Alright, you buy different collections and they're interesting, and sometimes the story about the collection itself is more interesting than the books. The collection of these books actually got away from me. I get a call from a guy, and this is late shift at Powell's, and he has a very thick – it sounds like an accent like Mr. Powell, Russian.


"I have books. Come buy."

"Well, can I do this tomorrow?"

"No, you must do now."

Ok. Now at Powell's at that time didn't have a store vehicle, so the book buying department had to use my old Chevy, and I would charge Powell's a little bit of mileage and that was because I thought they were being cheap. Later, after I was gone, they got vehicles, but in the meantime I'm using mine. So I go to this address in southeast Portland and its some old house with large laurel trees that need trimming and that's not kept up very well. I go to the front door and there's these two Russian guys and they're speaking Russian to each other.

"I'm John and I'm here to look at the books."

"Very good."

First I start on the main floor and there's all sorts of books and rare ones. I go to another room and there's all sorts of books – we're talking about thousands – on airplanes. I go into the basement and there's all sorts of military history books. And then I go to the second floor, and while I'm in the basement, somebody is rattling a door. [makes rattling noise] Kind of a weird noise and kind of spooks me, so I go back upstairs and this guy has got whole runs of the 1920s pulp magazines. I mean, there's a minor fortune in this house, of books. And I go down to try to find the Russian cats and say, "look, I can't possibly haul this away today. It's going to take a crew and a full day of just loading." And I come up with some kind of figure to purchase all of this.

As I'm going downstairs, I wander over into another room, "oh, there's another room over there." And I go in there and here is this photographic lab and here's all these pictures of military installations and bases in Oregon. And a room next to it has a ham radio and it's got code books, English to Russian code books. It's a ham radio thing. And I'm kind of like, "what the hell?" and I look in the closet and there's a uniform for every branch of the American services, size 8. And this is, "what the heck?"

Well, I go downstairs to talk to the Russians about buying the books, and they're talking, and I explain to them that there's no way I can do this in a hurry. I'm going to need a crew. I can't possibly buy all these books right now; I have to get this assembled. They don't like that answer. Suddenly, up the stairs comes this little old man, and one of the Russians says, "Harold, go back downstairs." And Harold says, "I don't want to. I don't want to be there; I want to be up here." And they say, "Harold, go away, we're going to take you someplace nice tonight. You're going to be able to go away with us."

"Well, I don't want to go just yet, I still have a couple codes to break and send off on the ham. I've got to do this."

"No, you've got to go now."

"I don't want to go now."

And I said, "well, look guys, you want me to buy the books tomorrow?"

"We will call you when to come."

So I go back to the store and I organize a crew for the next morning. And we wait. And we're not just sitting there waiting, we're working, but no call ever comes. The day after that, I figure, "what the heck?" So I hop in my car and I drive over there, I look in the windows, it's all gone. Everything's gone. Then I called other used bookstores and I said, "by any chance did you see a rare book collection?"

"Oh yeah," one store had some and another store had some but, "we don't know anything about it."

While I was there looking in the window, there was a neighbor that happened to be out and I said, "can you tell me about the guy who lived here?" And she said, "fascinating guy. He spoke fluent Russian. He would get on his radio and talk to Russia all night, you could hear him on a hot night, talking to these guys." And I thought, "my God, I've fallen into a safe house, a Soviet Union safe house." I tell people this. I told Trevor, he didn't believe me. I told Mike Powell, he didn't believe me. Nobody believed me. I even talked to a friend of mine in the FBI and he said, "well, we'll check it out." He came back and said, "well, there is a ham radio there. There is some evidence that there was some kind of Russian guy living there. You might have something here but, you know John, are you really sure?" I said, "I'm sure."


Well, I'm sure I stumbled into a Soviet safe house but nobody believes me. Well, fine. Now does that mean I'm going to have a hit on me? Not likely. It seems like there was something about a dead dog in that too, that some guy was looking for his dog and one of the Russians had said something to the effect of, "he's dead," and Harold started weeping. And I was like, "oh my God, what have I come into?" So you get these weird stories on book buying adventures.

Mike Powell, in the mid-'80s, bought a bookstore that was just about the size of Powell's. It was in Cleveland and it was called Kay's Books. And he was just starting to take over the operation. I knew I didn't want to be his manager; he wanted change and whatever. And there were a couple of guys that wanted to maybe be his manager, and they were going to take care of this and show that they could handle this. Apparently, after about three days, Mike called and said, "well, what's the progress?" And they said, "well, we're still trying to figure out what to do." And he said, "what the heck do you need?" And they both answered, in unison, "John Henley."

So I was shipped out there. And I said, "well, have you got a workforce yet? Have you got boxes? Have you got a method of transportation?" And they said, "well, how do you do that?" I said, "OK, you, call a railroad. Ring a railroad representative and find out how many box cars it will take, because it will take at least four or five, I'm thinking. We're not going to take the porn section; it's going right to the dumpster." So he goes off and he gets that going, and then the other guy comes in, and I said "you go get approximately x number of boxes."

"How do I do it?"

"Well rent a goddamn truck. Here's my credit card. Go get a truck, you can do this."

"I can?"

"Yeah. Look in the phone book under Boxing and Shipping."

"Oh, ok."

I decide that these guys can't handle hiring, so I go down to the casual labor office and there's about twenty guys. And I say, "hey guys, you want to help me box books? Ten dollars an hour, it will probably take us two weeks."

"We're in!"

"You, put those boxes here and write on it the name of the section."

"I can't write."

"You, can you write?"


"Work with him." [laughs] "You guys box this section."

Overall, they were good eggs. They were all memorable. One guy did have a mental disorder. As I would walk by, he would say, "I'm gonna kill your wife." And I'd look around and he'd pretend he didn't say that. And I'd walk by and he'd say, "then I'm gonna kill your children," and I said, "ok, you, just out. Get out. You've got some kind of problem and I don't want to deal with it."

One of them was this big African American guy, I believe his name was Robert, and then there was this big Italian guy. They didn't like each other at the first but, quite by accident, I had them work together, and they were always bad-mouthing each other, "you wop," "you nigger," etc. But it was like their work became competitive, so they became my best crew, even though they were abusing themselves. We had a stairway of about fifty steps and I had to get all the books from the second story down there. We had a chain gang, and then Robert stood at the top of the steps and he says, "hey wop, catch this," and he throws this box. The Italian guy catches it and says, "is that all you got?" So they started throwing the boxes down. And then it became kind of a game, and the black guy goes, "well, here's a ballbuster, here's a ballbuster." He'd throw it down and the Italian guy – Jimmy or whatever his name was – would catch it, "yeah, is that all you got?" Well, I took the rest of the crew and had them do the loading while these guys were playing this sick game.

Well, after about a half hour, I said, "hey, you go up there and you throw it down there."

"Yeah, I'll show him. I'll break his, I'll show him." It really got that way. Well, by the end of the time we were there, they were the best friends, drinking buddies, and having a great time. And they were talking music and things they had in common, so it was kind of fun, but at the outset...


We got Kay's Bookstore out of there and then the boxes were piggybacked on a train and off they went to Powell's. And we had to put them in warehouse because we couldn't assimilate five boxcars of books overnight; that couldn't happen. So I set up the pricing warehouse, which required a special staff with training in pricing used books. And they still have that. I called it the Price Taskforce, they've since renamed it the Warehouse, but they still have the warehouse staff and the methodology. But it's not something you will see if you walk in Powell's, it's off-site. But all the books that come into the organization get funneled over to there, where they get, more or less, proper research and evaluation.

So there are book buys I remember distinctly doing, and I have a ton more if I would think about them. It's hard to really start. It would require thinking about forty years of procuring stories of things that have – situations where I've been locked in rooms with Rottweilers barking and growling at me.

One of Trevor's favorite stories is Puffy the cat. A guy who would walk into the store every Friday afternoon at exactly 1:00, and he reeked. He was so bad we actually put Glade and such up at the front of the store, and then when he would leave, we would spray the air. It was just, pew. And if some of my staff had pissed me off that day or that week, I'd say, "ok, you've got the 1:00 with Stinky," and they would say, "oh God!" and they would buy his book or two books – it was always one or two books.

One day, I'm sitting out in front of Powell's and I'm not paying attention to what day or time it is. But up comes Stinky and I say, "oh man, he's going to talk to me, isn't he?" Well, knowing he's going to stink to high heaven, I light a cigarette; I smoked in those days. He says, "John, I'm glad it's you. You're my favorite buyer."

"Great, thanks."

But then, on the other hand, I don't want to do that to any of my staff. And then he says, "well, let me show it to you," and he opens his satchel and his satchel was off in the back and I never saw it. So he opens it up so I can look in, the first time I've ever looked in, and here's this putrefying cat. And I go, "oh God, man, what's that?" And he says, "that's my cat, Puffy." And I said, "well, Puffy doesn't look so good. Have you taken her to the vet lately?" And he says, "no, she's not been eating lately," and I say, "oh my God." So I said, "ok, look man" – I didn't know his real name, I didn't call him Stinky – I said, "sir, your cat is dead. It's way dead. It is beyond dead. And that is the smell I'm smelling every time you come in. Do you know that we keep Glade around because you smell so bad?"

Well he's weeping, "oh no, my kitty's dead." I said, "go to your vet and deal with this, and don't come back until you've showered, and don't ever bring that satchel back in. This is awful." Lots of people love that story. But you get all kinds of people, man. I've had angry customers try to put the whammy on me, customers try to throw fists at me, customers tip us. They come in all different varieties. Customers using the restroom for drugs, sex, all sorts of things other than restrooming. The occasional manhunt in the store – a guy runs in, says to me, "you've got to help me, the cops are after me," and I can see the cops coming. I said, "what do want me to call? A criminal?" [laughs] How do you handle something like that? And then book thieves, many a story about book thieves, which usually end up with us losing a book, not really winning our book back. You know, getting our book back. So I can talk about retail. It gets boring after a while and it truly, whether it's a bookstore or a Wal-Mart, the public is the public. You're going to see everything imaginable and, as Mark Twain said, "the trouble with fiction is it has to stick to what's possible, whereas reality doesn't."

CP: For the benefit of our audience, I'm looking at a napkin that your associate Trevor has written different ideas for stories for me to prompt from you. And the next one on the list is "Led Zeppelin."


JH: Oh, this has nothing to do with bookselling. This is an Oregon '60s piece. I believe – memory come back to me – March 1970, something like that...'71 maybe. Up in Portland we had a bit of a hippie scene going and there was a guy named Gary Ewing and he had a place that he called the Phantasmagoria. It was where the McMenamin brothers now have the Crystal Ballroom. And he would hire acts coming through town to play, and also any local rock bands. The Crystal Ballroom had been, at one time, a dance floor, and they had, I believe, springs and ball bearings in the floor. So it would sort of bounce a little bit, which was kind of an interesting thing, especially when smoking too much pot and what have you. I think the tickets were a buck each, something like that, and you could stay as long as you want. They didn't serve anything. The neighborhood at that time – around the corner was Washington Street and the head shops were there. It was the psychedelic supermarket; you could buy pipe screens and, if they knew you, you might even be able to buy pot, if they trusted you. But if they didn't, there was no chance. Ultimately, that place was firebombed by somebody and then they moved over to SW First and Ash or something.

I would take my date at the time; every Friday night, we would watch a rock act. And I was – I'm trying to remember if I was a senior or a freshman in college, but anyway, we went. And here at the window, instead of it being a dollar, it had gone up to a dollar fifty. And I hadn't brought enough change and neither did Molly. So I looked at the guy and I said, "all I've got is two bucks, man. Oh here, I have a hit of ozly." And he said, "ok, cool. Here's two joints change." [laughs]

And so we go in and we drop acid and light the pipes and they all go around. And everybody's doing everything up there; fire hazard and the whole thing. And I don't think there was much in the acid because I really don't remember tripping. But what happened is that the guy, Gary, was going to do the light show for the group and that encompassed whales and water and an opaque overhead projector, and you kind of swish around and there would be this psychedelic thing as the band played. Well, I think it was a group called Four Kings or something like that, some kind of idiot name, but they were a relatively good rock group. Well, they begin the set and they say, "hey guys, we've got a treat for you – tomorrow night, the guys from a British group, Led Zeppelin, are playing at the Memorial Coliseum and they're in town early and their roadies are setting up tonight. And they want to come over and do a set with us and hang out. And they're called Led Zeppelin, we have not heard the album but we think you'll like them. They're great guys."

And then the Led Zeppelin poured in their first album, all the stuff that was on the first album – "Whole Lotta Love" – all the great hard... Well, Gary Ewing is now tripping very badly and he says, "oh, Henley, you've gotta run the light show, I can't handle this." So I get up there and I'm doing this with Molly and we're taking turns playing the light. And Led Zeppelin playing away. And we're just digging it and, like I said, I don't remember tripping. I think Molly said, "if that was acid, it tasted more like one of those Pez candies." She said, "I think we got a tab of Pez," and in those days, that kind of thing was rife. It was not uncommon to light a joint and say, "ew, cigarette" or pencil shavings; you'd get all sorts of crazy things. And certainly anything that was available wasn't the designer drugs of today, which I've not had, but I've heard are "blow you away" quality.

So that's my Led Zeppelin story. They liked my light show, they wanted to know if I would do it for them at the Coliseum. I said, "no man, I've got to go back to school the day after, I can't make it." And he said, "well, if you change your mind, you can come with us and do that. You do a good job." I said, "no, I can't." They were some British guys, you know. And later their album came out and it was like, "wow, that is really a good – that's as good as their stage performance. Why didn't I do that?" And I tell Trevor and other people later, "I could have been a roadie."


"Nah. Spy houses, Led Zeppelin, what a liar."

And I say, "well, it's true! It's true!"

"No, it isn't. It can't possibly be true." And then Trevor looks up Led Zeppelin and says, "yeah, they were here in March of '70," and "oh my God, they were here in town. It's plausible." And I actually asked Gary Ewing, before he died, he came in the bookstore and I said, "Gary, was I there the night that Zeppelin?"

"Yeah, I think you were, man. I think I was sick."

"OK, good, I'm not entirely hallucinating." I tried to find Molly and I can't find her, I hear she's a lawyer in the Bay Area, but she probably doesn't want to see me. You know, "oh, I don't want to go into that part of my life. No, please, stay in Portland." [laughs]

CP: The next item on my napkin is "Bobby Kennedy."

JH: Oh, just bumping into him. That's not much of a story; it's hardly much of a story. In 1968, I'm returning a bunch of books to the Multnomah County Library and I've got a big stack in my arms. And I round a corner and I walk into somebody [claps hands] like that, and my books fly everywhere. So, "I'm sorry, sir" and start picking stuff up, and I look over and its Bobby Kennedy and he's picking up books. He said, "wow, you're an intelligent young man," and whatever. His body guards are looking at me and, of course, I was wondering later, when I heard he was shot, I said, "where were the body guards that night?" They were all around me and I just ran into him, I wasn't going to kill the guy.

But that's not much of a story. We all brush with people, except sometimes you collide with them. We all meet famous people or see people in passing. One time I was walking across the street and suddenly this cop pulls up on a motorbike and he points at me, "stay!"


And then more motorcycle cops come and they block off the traffic going three directions, and along comes this limousine with this American flag and I can kind of see in, it looks like Jerry Ford. So I didn't know, "hi," you know? And he looks up and he pulls up this thing and says [talking into hand], "hi. How are you? Thanks." It was like, "that was weird, man," that's a know, just standing on a corner minding my own business. I wasn't looking for Jerry Ford. But I know other people will say, "well, I would have flipped him off." And I would say, "no, you don't. You respect the office, man, respect the office. You may not like him, but respect the office. He's got some hard decisions to make." Although looking back, I think Jerry Ford was a better president than people gave him credit for.

CP: Early science fiction convention in OMSI?

JH: Well, I don't really have a lot to do with that. This is a piece of Oregon history. In fact, Scott Givens at the Book Browser here in town actually has a real archive of this. He has purchased, a couple years ago, the archive on this convention, from that group that threw it. So there is a kind of archive here in town. Scott, I've offered many a time to help organize. "Nah," he's too busy or whatever, but he's got this archive.

The Oregon science fiction scene in the '40s was one of the strongest in the country. We were one of the biggest science fiction bases around. And it's no surprise, because we were one of the first people to see UFOs and Bigfoot. Oregon has always been weird and this is keeping in step. At the same time, Pinto Colvig is making history – Oregon's own Pinto Colvig, who is down in L.A. creating the Bozo the Clown story. Roseburg's contribution to California is through Bozo. Important!

So in 1951, maybe '50 – again, my years are not exactly clear on this – one of the great science fiction conventions is held in the Mallory Hotel in Portland, Oregon. E.E. "Doc" Smith, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein; all the greats go there. And amongst them is L. Ron Hubbard. He reads from his new book, Dianetics. Apparently everybody gets up except for A.E. van Vogt who becomes, later, a major dianetics dude. Everybody leaves and L. Ron Hubbard is heard shouting, "I'll get even." Something to that effect, probably not as nice.


All the proceeds from this were to build OMSI. OMSI had been a small little office in the Lloyd Center area – Lloyd Center wasn't built yet, but it was a little business shop. And they wanted to buy some land up on the hill and set up a much better museum. Well, the convention raised money and the way they raised the most money was that they had an Aaron's rod over this little covered shower curtain. And an old woman would walk in there with a cane, they would close the curtain, and they'd turn on the Aaron's rod, and for three bucks you could see the matter transformation. They'd open up the curtain and here would be a gal in a very skimpy suit – a young girl. And that's how they raised $300 to buy the land for OMSI. Stupid but true.

I was not there. I was maybe a half a year or half a day old at this time. But in 1982, I was a member of the Oregon Science Fiction Fan Club, and we decided to throw a conference called OreCon in 1981. And in 1982 we did it again, and I decided – I had known that this event had happened, so I went out and I found as many of the original attendees as I could. And I actually got about ten, and they in turn invited people. So we got a gathering of about fifty old people who had been at that convention. And I ran around with a tape recorder, doing oral histories. And I've got about five of them. I wish I had – I wasn't professional. I got five and this I turned over to the Portland Science Fiction Fan Club. They've lost it. They've lost all of this.

But Fritz Leiber had been there and he turned up at this, and I got an oral history from Fritz Leiber about his remembrances. Asimov, I think, declined. He could have come, but said he wasn't well. E.E. "Doc" Smith had died much before. I don't know if I even bothered getting L. Ron Hubbard; I'm not sure if he was alive or not. Well, he may have been alive but ascending or something. I didn't bother getting him. But that's where I got these stories about how they raised the money. And, like I say, Scott Givens actually has an archive of the fan club that threw that. It's right over here at Browser's Books. Now, I don't know if he's selling it or what his plans are, but it's there. Somebody should buy that, because Oregon's contribution to science fiction is actually fairly large. Theodore Sturgeon comes from Hood River, Kate Wilhelm and Damon Knight taught at U of O. We've got Ursula LeGuin. Reginald Bretnor was from Medford.

And then Ted Didke [?]. Now Ted Didke was nothing but an editor, but he was the Doubleday Science Fiction editor. And for a long time, regular publishers – big New York places – would not publish science fiction. But then they decided, "now, we see the paperbacks are doing well, so maybe we'll set up a book club." And Ted Didke in Lake Oswego was the editor for that. So Oregon's contribution has been pretty good to science fiction and we've always had a strong interest in it. I'm trying to think about what other things to say about Oregon science fiction. There was a legacy.

CP: Do you have a LeGuin story? She's the next name on my napkin.

JH: I don't really have a LeGuin story other than I got to know her at Powell's, working at Powell's. We've had a long-running friendship, but I don't really have a most excellent story. I have followed her career all of her life. When I was a kid, I was reading her though she's not too much – she's only in her eighties now. That's like twenty years older than me. When you get into the sixties, somebody being a few decades older than you doesn't seem as different or big as it was when you were, say, ten and you meet a thirty-year old. "Boy that's old." Or even when you're in your twenties and you meet an eighty-year old, that's ancient. But you get to my age, you're getting toward the end of the tail but it doesn't seem as long. There's still life experiences and there's a lot more overlap in your experiences than there is with a kid who tweets and social media and stuff I don't do. And I look at that and I say, "well, now I know how my dad felt when I put on a Beatles record."

CP: The last two names I have here are Robert Sheckley and Tom Hardy.


JH: Well Tom Hardy, very quickly, is a graduate from Oregon State. He's one of the world's foremost sculptors and he is a World War II veteran, he came back to Oregon as one of our Oregon treasures. He was an Oregon sculptor. He's still with us but very old; he's had several serious strokes now. There's somebody you should probably talk to if you can. I'm sure he's not dementia yet, but he hasn't got long. But he certainly knew the arts scene, very big in the arts scene. And he was a good friend of mine, a drinking buddy. And he actually dabbled in the book business for a brief period and set up a bookstore within the Great Northwest bookstore. Do I have a story about Tom? Not really, just friendship over the years, sort of like any long friendship. do I have a really great crack-you-up story or insightful story? Not particularly. If I had thought about it, I might have come with, like, Ursula's favorite jingle when she was growing up was a Pepsi-Cola thing. I mean, little things that you learn about people, like you learn about a friend or a wife. But as time goes on, you get more of that revealed.

And then Robert Sheckley. Robert Sheckley was, again, a science fiction writer. He came to Portland and his fourth wife was a young woman from the Science Fiction Book Club in Portland, Jay Sheckley – Jay Rothville at that time. She goes to France and meets Sheckley. She's very pretty and they get married, and she brings him to Portland. Well, he falls in love with Portland. Powell's is great. Well, he and Jay are over with, I don't think there's a stopwatch fast enough. But he stayed. Then he married a gal named Gail Dana; a longstanding Oregon family, the Danas. And they were married approximately seven years, eight years, maybe ten. I don't know; I'm not sure. Let's see 1990 to 2000, thereabouts. And they were separated, so I'm not sure if you want to count that or not. But going strictly by the book, they were probably married about fifteen years.

Anyway, Bob wrote – at this point in his life, he was kind of out of his prime, writing-wise. But again, many lunches with him. Mostly we would get together for lunches or, after work, beers; for me, after-work beers. And he liked my stories, he would write them down. He especially liked the night I was attacked by Santa Clauses.

We had a bar in Portland called The Embers. Kind of a gay/evening nightclub, it's cool. Well, one night in the '70s – this is when the streaking thing was big – everybody there put on a Santa hat, took off all their clothes, and decided they were going to streak into Powell's. And I see them coming and it's just about closing, and I thought, "aw, man." So I lock the doors and these naked Santas are pounding on the door, and I wish I'd had a cellphone camera, it was something to videotape. But again, he [gesturing toward Trevor] doesn't believe me. There must have been thirty Santa Clauses, in the nude, beating on door. There were a couple of employees who saw that and they were actually quite frightened. They were quite upset, running and hiding. And I said, "aw man, just a bunch of drunk guys. Just chill, they'll go." And a half hour later, "they'll go." After about forty-five minutes, they were getting cold and ornery, yelling at me and flipping me off and such. "Fine, I'm nice and warm in here, you guys can go home." I don't know, they probably wouldn't have done anything except run through the place, but something told me not to let them in – my gut instinct – just in case it was like a mob theft or something.

"What did the suspect look like?"

"Well, there were fifty of them."

"What did they look like?"

"They were all dressed in Santa Claus clothes but they were naked."

"Could you identify them in a lineup?"

"Well, yeah. Just put any Santa Claus up there."

I could just see that as a scenario. So just lock the door and turn off the lights and stand by in case they get ugly out there. Adventures in retail, ok? Bob loved that story. He was very Jewish and thought it was wonderful. I said, "yeah, those Christians, you've got to watch them. They're crazy."


CP: Well, as we sort of wind up a little bit, I want to return to a theme from the first interview, and that's family. But in this instance, talk about your wife and your son.

JH: OK. I met Kathy and the "let's get acquainted" dance at Southern Oregon College. As I had mentioned, I wanted to be an actor and I went down there. And they had a freshman dance and that's where we met. And we started dating and we broke up, and we started dating again and we'd break up. We'd go to parties and we'd end up talking to each other. Finally, after four years of this, we got married. We've just celebrated forty years. A long-suffering woman.

Thirty-three years ago, we had a baby boy. He was very slow acquiring language and, after his second DPT shot, he lost all his language and he started misbehaving just horribly. Self-abuse. He was trying to chew off his hand and blind himself, and we were totally freaked, "what's going on?" The doctors said, "oh, he'll grow out of it." Finally, we did get ahold of an educational therapist, and she said, "this is autism. This is classic autism."

Well, we got a crash course. Kathy and I went up the doctor, the experts at OHSU, and they said, "well, the bad news is it's irreversible, psychological damage, caused by the mother not paying enough attention to the infant." And I said, "that's not how it happened, man. I was there. She was always doting on her baby. In no way is this the case. Things went downhill after the second shot."

"Well no, those vaccines are perfectly safe."

"Well, maybe he's allergic to them."

"No, they're perfectly safe."

Well, we started doing research into autism on our own and got involved with a lot of – we're fairly big people in the Oregon autism community. We got to know Dr. Bernie Rimland, who was the guy who really made some breakthroughs there. And he was basically the guy who said, "this psychoanalytic stuff is nonsense." And he tried various therapies. We started working with him and his up-and-coming aide, Dr. Steve Edelson. He's an expert and he's still with us. He took over the Autism Research Institute after Dr. Rimland died.

Well, Kathy and I have spent all the money I've ever made, and then some, on autism research projects. And some of them have been proven efficacious and useful, and some didn't pan out. Sean is now thirty-three. He's, oddly enough, showing some interest in signs that show that he's trying harder to talk and he's actually trying to become less autistic, if that's the way to say it. Kathy procured him a job – after he got out of Grant High School – at New Seasons markets, and they have been great with him, they adore him. They have kept him gainfully employed. At first, there was a rocky moment – Sean has to have an aide with him, because he can solve problems, but sometimes not fast enough. So there's an aide who gets paid by the state of Oregon to just kind of make sure that he doesn't make either the wrong decision or is told what to do in case, like "get out of the way of the truck" or what have you.

Well, with the aide being there, the New Seasons management was a little worried saying, "this might be a liability for us, we can't handle that, so we might have to let him go." Well, Kathy called up Governor Kulongoski and said, "I want to nominate New Seasons for employers of the year for taking on our classically autistic son. It was very brave of them." And the governor said, "great!" So he went up and gave the manager an award, and the problem vanished. The whole issue just vanished. Now he's a prized employee and they do anything they can to take care of him.

Kathy is very active in autism research and has been. She set up the Autistic Children's Activity Program which, in the Portland area, is something to bridge children between basically four to twenty who, during the summer, have nowhere to go. And it's a place where we have educational aides and special Ed people hired for the summer, who are also not busy. And the kids do activities and basically, while they're doing activities, the teachers try to make sure they don't regress over the summer, from what they may have gained the year before. So Kathy set that up, and that's a pretty big accomplishment.


But after Sean turned twenty-three years old, it was time for us to move on and let the next wave of parents do it. And it seems to be running just fine. I can't speak with authority on what they're up to. Right now, Kathy's working on the Autism Research and Resources of Oregon, which is, somebody gets a diagnosis and they have a place to call and she can tell them options – who in the area is the best researcher. And we have events. For a while we had a center, but we ran out of funding. The center was really cool. We had a group of Islamic women with autistic kids and they didn't want to go to a Christian church which, Christian churches often have facilities you can use, but they didn't feel comfortable. And they wanted a building where the men could be at one place and they could be away from the men. And other buildings had said, "well, we're not cool on that," and Kathy said, "whatever your cultural tradition is, come here and use this as you wish. We don't mind if you say Islamic prayers; you say whatever you want. As long as your helping your autistic kids – you're not slaughtering them or something – do whatever your trip is." So it's really good for the community.

She got Dr. Contreras who is South America's great autism expert, and a neighbor – of all things – he's a neighbor of, or was, of the late García Márquez. And so he could talk about, "oh yeah, Garcia," he would tell you these stories. He and his beautiful wife, Maria, they would come and talk to the Hispanic community about autism. And he'd tell them what's going on, and Kathy would give presentations and he would quickly translate, and vice-versa. He would talk to Kathy and she would tell the gangs what he's saying. So, like I say, that's another part of my dimensionality, as it were. So I have a lot of effort in autism, as it were.

CP: Well John, I want to thank you very much for this. This has been a lot of fun and we've learned a lot about a lot of different things.

JH: There's probably a story you didn't get. I don't think he [referring to Trevor] still believes me. I think he wants me to put it on tape so, "yeah, we'll just prove that never happened. He's publicly a liar."



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