If you want to find a rare book or unusual map in Juneau, there’s only one place to go–Dee Longenbaugh’s shop. Longenbaugh is the owner of The Observatory: a rare book shop, used bookstore and treasure trove all in one. You can find everything from local cookbooks about how to prepare halibut to maps of the Great White North.
When I arrive, Dee Longenbaugh sits at her computer. Piles of old papers peek out from under her desk. I avoid stepping on them. I don’t want to trample documents that look a hundred years old.
But Longenbaugh says age doesn’t determine the worth of a rare book or a map. For her, it’s not so much about what year the map came from, it’s more a question of what the map reveals.
“Why are these old ones so very different? If you’re curious, you want to find out why,” she says.
“What did they believe at that time? And it’s the only thing I know that shows the world as our ancestors knew it or thought they knew it.”
While her priciest map is $15,000, Longenbaugh stocks inexpensive maps so that anyone can buy them.
“You can have excellent taste and little money and we all know the opposite can be very true. But I also get people hooked on maps. Maybe you’re young, don’t have much money, OK, well here’s a little map for you. And say, five or 10 years go by, well you now you’ve got money, oh yeah, and you love those maps.”
Although Longenbaugh is a business owner, her store began as a passion project when her children had gotten older. She collected around 343 old books about Alaska on trips to San Francisco and New York. Enough to set up her bookstore in 1977. So she rented an old house in Sitka’s downtown area.
“…and my sweet older son built me a very nice bookcase which I still have and I put the books on display and ran a little ad in the paper and people started coming and it was just kind of fun.”
Longenbaugh says that it was the first used bookstore in Southeast.
In 1989, she and The Observatory moved to Santa Fe for a time. But she says she had a longing for Alaska. She flew back to the state to visit with her daughters, who live in Juneau, and stayed.
Longenbaugh originally settled in the Juneau Empire offices. She’s since ended up on the corner of Third and Franklin streets where there’s a bakery in the basement. Sometimes the baker’s music vibrates up through the floors.
Although it’s a little quiet during the off-season, Longenbaugh loves meeting the world travelers during the summer months. Some antique owners keep their rarities behind lock and key, but she believes in inviting guests to see and touch her maps.
She says one way to tell an old map is genuine is to feel for the Gutenberg press plate mark – the raised ridge along the side of the paper. She pulls a circa 1763 map of Alaska and Asia from a drawer, and spreads it across a table in back. The paper is made of linen and is thick and pliable.
“A reproduction’s going to be smooth of course. If it’s real, you feel that plate mark? And you look it over on the other side. There it is. Even stronger. That would not come through of course on a reproduction.”
Logenbaugh also has a group of loyal customers in the community who come for the books. Mary Ellen Frank and her husband have been visiting the shop for 20 years.
Frank crafts figurines and then creates clothing for them that reflects traditional Native dress from around Alaska. Her work has been featured in museum collections and exhibitions.
She says she’s browsed The Observatory for research and that Longenbaugh goes above and beyond.
“When Dee travels, and she’s travels worldwide, she keeps her eyes open for things for you,” says Frank. “Or if she goes into a museum there that is of particular interest to you, she’ll let you know about that, get photographs for you. Really share.”
And Frank can guess why Longenbaugh is so popular in town.
“When you drop by her shop, if there’s somebody else there, in no time at all, you’re all involved in the conversation. She’s just one of those really engaging, charismatic people.”
Longenbaugh has a personal attachment to her maps. She says her favorite is a 1570 depiction of Alaska and Asia recreated in the 1600s. She says that Alaska is almost unrecognizable until you spot the Strait of Anian, the former name for the Bering Strait. However, her favorite maps are usually her newest and she moves around with them.
“I take ‘em home and sometimes I bring ‘em back because I get another one that I like even better,” she says.
While certainly at the traditional retirement age, Longenbaugh is all about her business. She says it gives her the chance to meet interesting people, examine books and maps, and keep on learning. She doesn’t plan to give that up anytime soon.