Longtime Alaskan, book store owner receives legislative honor

Dee Longenbaugh shares passion for Russian America history, antiquarian maps

Posted: Sunday, April 25, 2010

Last month, a longtime Alaska resident and local bookstore owner was recognized by the Legislature for her "lifetime of outstanding citizenship and her contributions to Alaska history."

Kim Andree / Juneau Empire
Kim Andree / Juneau Empire

Dee Longenbaugh, an Alaska resident since 1963, opened The Observatory bookstore in Sitka in 1977, mainly to share her passion for Russian America history books and antiquarian maps.

"I'd done so much volunteering and community good in Sitka, I felt like doing community evil," Longenbaugh said jokingly. "I was feeling the need to do something beside keep house and cook, ... so I started a bookstore, specializing in out-of-print Alaska" books and maps.

Longenbaugh said her residency in Sitka started her passion for Russian America history.

"Sitka was the old capital from 1808 until 1906, and if you live in Sitka and you like history, you start with Sitka," she said. "The next thing you know, you're broadening, asking, 'Who were these people and what was that event about?' And then you get interested."

Longenbaugh eventually moved The Observatory to Juneau in 1992, in the old Alaska Electric Light and Power building downtown.

Today, the shop's intimate shelving, historic ambiance and maze-like layout gives it its character. Longenbaugh's dog, Sadie, also sets a homely tone by greeting customers at the door or lounging on the front step in good weather. In essence, Longenbaugh values good reading, antique maps and interesting conversation.

Although her shop carries a variety of books, the thrust is nonfiction.

"Because that's the good part about Alaska," Longenbaugh said. "It doesn't have to be history particularly, it can be memoirs, Gold Rush, the Native people. Lots of interesting things have happened here."

Longenbaugh said she is the only certified book appraiser in Alaska and appraises antiquarian maps and books for individuals, libraries and estates.

Longenbaugh and her shop were also recognized in such publications as Fodor's Travel Guides, New York Times and New Yorker magazine, and several television specials about Alaska, the legislative award reads.

When she started her research, however, Longenbaugh said she thought she knew a lot but didn't.

"Over the years I have learned some things," Longenbaugh said. "Old Alaska is an area so fascinating there's no end to it, no way to know everything."

Although Longenbaugh says her work is her hobby, she travels to Europe, mostly London, every year to buy more books and maps about Alaska. She usually combines this trip with the annual symposium of the International Map Collectors' Society and the semi-annual International Conference on the History of Cartography, where she has presented papers to other map historians.

"The last several years, map shops have been disappearing, they're going to the Internet," Longenbaugh said of her travels to London. "But I really prefer to see the map, hold it and feel. Even though these are from people who I've been buying from since 1979, there's just something about looking at a picture and feeling the real thing."

Since opening The Observatory, Longenbaugh has acquired more than 3,000 books, many of them about Alaska and other polar regions.

Longenbaugh has published articles in Alaska Magazine and recently the IMCoS Journal, as well as book reviews for the Sitka Sentinel. She also just finished a book on the history of the exploration and mapping of Alaska from 1648 to 1900. Getting that published is the next item, Longenbaugh said.

"Dee's current writing project, a book about the history of mapping in Alaska, has its origins in her love of history and of historic maps and mapping," the legislative award reads. "Dee's enthusiasm for and love of Alaska history has inspired students, historians, and many, many visitors to her shop for 33 years."

The Observatory has long been a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, a national organization open only to experienced, ethical dealers. ABAA is affiliated with the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers.

• Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at kim.andree@juneauempire.com.

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