Bookstore moves, piece by piece

The Observatory packs historic maps and heads to new location

Posted: Tuesday, January 02, 2007

How do you move a community icon? One box at a time.

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This past weekend, Dee Longenbaugh, longtime owner of The Observatory, moved her used bookstore one block to its new location with the help of family, friends, at least one employee and the Juneau-Douglas High School cross-country team.

At first glance, the task might seem simple or boring. That is, until you realize the scope of the move.

Longenbaugh, who declined to give her age, has been in business in Juneau for almost 15 years. When you add that to the 12 years she ran a store in Sitka and the time spent dragging it to and from New Mexico, it equals about 500 boxes of books, 78 individual shelves and 2000-odd maps worth thousands of dollars.

All of the items had to cataloged, packed carefully, unpacked and reshelved precisely the way they were in the original store.

It took her troop of workers almost six days to get it all done. And Longenbaugh still isn't settled into her new digs.

Looking at the stacks of boxes, she smiled and said, "They were really good workers."

Longenbaugh opened her Juneau store in 1992. One of three bookstores in Juneau, she specializes in rare antique maps and used books about Alaska. She said she is the only rare map dealer in the Northwest.

She sells books about Alaska history, geography, botany and just about anything you would want to know about the 49th state. She has become an Alaska ambassador of sorts. Her knowledge of Alaska is encyclopedic. When tourists come to Juneau, they jot down to her North Franklin Street store, where she invariably winds up giving primers on the Southeast and the rest of Alaska.

"People simply can't understand how big it (Alaska) is," she said. "It's one-fifth the size of the U.S."

Longenbaugh gives Juneau residents a chance to dive deeper into the area's history, and touch or purchase maps that were part of that history.

"Alaskans are great readers and they love to read about Alaska," she said.

Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho said Longenbaugh, who is writing a book about Alaska, is an asset to the community.

"Dee's one of Southeast Alaska's great accessible historians," he said. "If you're looking for Alaskana and old maps, it is the place to go."

Longenbaugh said she started selling books because it seemed interesting and easy. She got into maps accidentally in 1979, during a buying trip to London. Now she travels the world to attend conferences on cartography. She has seen some of the rarest maps, and owns a few. One of her maps came out of Capt. James Cook's expedition's of the Alaska coast. When he returned to England, a colleague made a detailed map of the Alaska coastline. In an attempt to keep his discoveries secret, the British Admiralty originally banned the map. It is now worth more than $15,000, if the right buyer can be found.

Longenbaugh is passionate about maps because they offer so many windows into the past. When you see a map, you are looking at the height of knowledge from the time the map was made. This extends not only to the geographic images depicted in the map, but the tools and mathematical formulas used to lay them down. When you look at a map you see "the evolution of the human mind," Longenbaugh said.

"When you see a map, you see the world the way your ancestors did."

• Will Morris may be contacted at

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