A 14-week journey through time

‘Casual historian’ inventoried The Observatory bookstore’s invaluable stock of Alaskana

When Dee Longenbaugh officially shuttered The Observatory bookstore for good last winter, after falling ill earlier in the year, she closed the door on nearly three decades as a Juneau institution.

 

But the end of the revered downtown landmark at the corner of Third and Franklin streets marked the beginning of a more than three-month treasure hunt for self-professed “casual historian” Patti David after she was hired by the Longenbaugh family to evaluate the bookstore’s stock.

The Alaskana amassed by Longenbaugh over the course of four decades — with every map cabinet and stack of paper in every corner of the bookstore painstakingly sifted through by David — is likely to have an exciting new chapter, as collectors from across the country have expressed interest in its purchase.

“This whole journey has been so amazing,” David said.

David first met Longenbaugh 10 years ago when she came into the bookstore looking for a copy of the “Teichmann diary,” the first written account by a Jewish person in Alaska. Longenbaugh, David recalls, immediately said she had two copies.

When she heard that Longenbaugh was closing down The Observatory, David approached the family about assisting in the liquidation of the stock because she has experience in facilitating projects, and because she knows Alaska history well enough that she knew who would be interested in the collection.

David initially thought she could get done within a few weeks. But it quickly became evident to her that she would need to take her time evaluating what was in the multi-room space.

“I learned to look at every single piece of paper,” she said. “I feel like I’ve touched everything, and I’ve carried every single book at least four or five times.”

“I’ve gotten very good at moving a box to move a box to move a box,” she added with a laugh.

David estimated she has spent at least five hours a day for the last 14 weeks sorting through 30,000-50,000 books and probably another 30,000 pieces of ephemera, because she would find items squirreled away in random places — between the pages of textbooks, for example.

“Just yesterday, I found (what I thought) was a gift tag,” she said. That “tiny” piece of paper turned out to be a Robert Frost Christmas card from 1950, signed by the artist.

The task of wading through so much potentially valuable material felt overwhelming at first, David admitted.

“I was so blown away,” she said. “I felt like an intruder. I didn’t sit down at (Longenbaugh’s) desk for weeks. Then I started trying to figure out how to peel away the layers, to get to the collection.”

Observatory fans continue pilgrimage to shuttered store

Longenbaugh opened The Observatory in Sitka in 1977 after the youngest of her four children entered high school.

“I was looking for something to do because I was very bored,” Longenbaugh told the Empire in an interview last year. “I thought I would see how it worked out, and if it didn’t, OK.”

Longenbaugh briefly transplanted her bookstore to New Mexico, still primarily dealing in Alaskana, before moving to Juneau in 1989. For the next nearly three decades, she could be found at her desk, ready to offer direction in the search for a book or to share some of her encyclopedic knowledge on any number of topics.

Mostly, Longenbaugh specialized in the history of Alaska, former Russian America, and maps. In addition to helping people find books and providing interesting conversation, she traveled to Europe regularly to search out more inventory and to present at conferences of the International Map Collectors’ Society and the International Conference on the History of Cartography. Longenbaugh won an award from the Alaska Legislature in 2010 for “a lifetime of outstanding citizenship and her contributions to Alaska history.”

So it’s no surprise that The Observatory had so many dedicated fans, or that they have been making the pilgrimage to the store to say goodbye.

“People are processing the loss of an institution — they really relied on the comfort of coming in here,” David said.

Initially, it was locals coming by, she said, but then the tourist season got into full swing and she has been getting visitors from around the world.

“Dee had friends and admirers from all corners of the earth,” David said. “It’s been absolutely joyous to hear so many personal accounts.”

One Delta pilot told her he spent hours in the bookstore, with Longenbaugh teaching him how to read antique maps.

“It’s happened dozens of times,” David said. “Everyone has a story about what this store meant to them — and Dee.”

As if to prove her point, a woman stops into the slowly emptying space to pay for a map she purchased earlier in the week.

According to David, the woman poked her head in and asked, “Do you have something that smells like this store?” The woman explained that her husband has a very stressful job and she would send him to the bookstore to decompress.

“He would come back happy,” the woman told David, adding that he was “so bummed” when the store closed. She wanted to buy him a map to remind him of those good times.

“I told her, smell away!” David laughed.

Collection includes valuable climate change data

The Observatory ended up functioning as somewhat of a museum, according to David.

“There are so many things in here that are so valuable to Alaska, quirky things … dozens if not hundreds of items, an amazing archive,” she said. “A lot of stuff was stacked in here, but that’s what protected it. There was such a volume of material, it spooked most people away.”

The most unique surprise was the archive of conservation material she uncovered, David said.

“Dee couldn’t say no (to anyone), that’s why there are hundreds of textbooks,” she said.

But one of those stashes will prove invaluable to future generations of Alaskans, in David’s estimation. Longenbaugh purchased the collection of a scientist who had “feverishly” squirreled away documents dating back to 1900 that included measurements of snow, animal studies, soil samples and old climatology reports.

“It had been sitting on the floor, getting covered with dust,” David said, adding that the materials constitute early baseline markers for climate, making it a very valuable discovery for studying climate change. She is hoping to acquire the funding needed to digitize the thousands of pages of raw data and put it in the public domain. She estimates that the six- to 12-month project to create a searchable database on a secure website could cost between $30,000-$50,000.

“We don’t want to lose the information,” David said. “Alaska is the canary in the coal mine” when it comes to climate change.

Climate data aside, David said she has uncovered innumerable “wonderful, unique treasures” — personal accounts of coming to Alaska in the 1800s, including dozens of accounts of traditions and language and art.

“What’s archived here is Dee’s history, too,” she mused. “Her notes, her research. … There is her correspondence with historians and map dealers — just boxes and boxes and boxes.”

Longenbaugh “loved all this — that’s what’s beautiful about this collection,” David said. “And that it’s untouched. People cannibalize books; they will razor out images or title pages. To find maps still inside books is very rare, and these are pristine. Typically, people take them out to sell.”

The collection amassed by Longenbaugh includes “mountains and mountains” of ephemera — calendars, magazines, pamphlets, menus, invitations — all related to Alaska.

“This is one of my favorites,” David said, picking up a recipe book that she believes belonged to a camp cook from St. Paul Island, with recipes dating back to 1917 and extending through the mid-1940s. One “receipt” notes sternly, “Not to be given away.”

“This is the fun part of the whole adventure — you could find out the rest of the story with a little digging,” David said.

David divided the valuable books into two separate collections. The Alaskana collection had been moved to a secure place and is available for purchase.

By the end of the summer, it will have been barged to Seattle, David said, explaining that she hates to take it out of Alaska, but that collectors don’t want to travel here. If there is any particular item someone had wanted to purchase, David said, they can contact her at obooksalaska@gmail.com. The literary collection, she hopes, will go in a bulk sale to a used bookstore such as Powell’s in Portland.

David gave away a lot of books to the Friends of the Library, and also put a lot of books outside on the sidewalk for people passing by, “as a gift from Dee.”

Once David locks the door of The Observatory behind her for good, she is off to Barrow, she said, to liquidate a similar collection there.

“On a personal level, this has been so good to me,” she said. “It’s been such an amazing exercise. … It’s been a schooling.”


• Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 523-2246 or liz.kellar@juneauempire.com.


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