Chattanoogan: Polly Henry's Love Affair With Books

Tuesday, March 14, 2006 - by Suzanne Walker
Polly Henry, Joanne Terry and daughter-in-law Jeanie Henry. Click to enlarge.
Polly Henry, Joanne Terry and daughter-in-law Jeanie Henry. Click to enlarge.
- photo by Suzanne Walker

"People think that this kind of store only exists in movies and TV,” said owner of All-Books Inc. Polly Henry as she flipped through a 400-year-old handcrafted book.

The native Chattanoogan remembers her mother taking her and her six siblings to used book stores. “My mother loved books and words.” Her mother attended UT in 1918.

Ms. Henry said she went to Central High School in Chattanooga because at the time it was the only school that offered four years of Latin, which her mother felt was essential.

Ms. Henry said she always knew that she wanted to own a used bookstore, so in 1989 she started a store on Signal Mountain. Eleven years ago, the store was moved to Broad Street, where it is currently located. Now her store is packed with book shelves that she built.

Many people drive from other cities to All-Books, she said. Her store carries many rare books that date back hundreds of years. One of her books was handwritten and signed by ambassadors of the Vatican in 1560 and could nearly be considered an incunabulum, a book written before the invention of the printing press, since the first printing press began in 1501.

Ms. Henry said she has many handwritten and signed books, as well as many other extraordinary books. As an example, she has a book that dates back to 1741 that was written in a high class German font. Few books in this font remain because most, under Hitler’s command, were destroyed, she said.

In order to price many of these hard-to-find books she uses Sotheby Catalogues which indicate the last time a book was auctioned and its cost. She said she researches prices on all books to make sure All Books is selling at the lowest price.

Ms. Henry said when she began her store she had little experience in business. Previously, she spent many years traveling to craft shows selling toys and puppets she had made. She eventually sold her craft business to one of her sisters. Some of her handmade puppets are displayed in two permanent Smithsonian exhibits in the Museum of Folklore History.

She said she learned how to manage the store as she went. “You learn from your customers.” When she first started the store a “how to” book came in that explained how to run a used book store. She said the book was helpful and it was where she learned that a used bookstore must have at least 20,000 books to effectively reach a wide range of readers.

Ms. Henry’s store certainly covers a wide range that includes fiction, non fiction, local history, out of print books, how to books, children’s books and much more. All Books has a reputation for selling high end art books at significantly lower costs. She also carries old books that customers like to use to decorate their book shelves.

She noted that 75 percent of an older book's value is in the dust jacket. Assisted by several other employees, Ms. Henry takes pride in the quality of books she sells and the care taken in their preservation.

Through her experience Ms. Henry has developed a vast knowledge about book selling. She has even helped several other people begin their own bookstores.

Ms. Henry has a large family that also lives in Chattanooga. She was married in 1952 to Leon Henry, who owns Walter A. Wood Supply Company. For many years he was known for his reputation as a track athlete, she said. Mr. Henry held the 100-meter track record on a cinder track for 10 years. Mr. Henry now has Parkinson’s disease. “He’s still a real inspiration,” she said, “especially to his grandchildren.” They have three children and 18 grandchildren.

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Daisy Mae is the greeter at All-Books
- Photo2 by Suzanne Walker

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