Down to serious business

On the Waterfront

Posted: Friday, August 06, 2004

Now let us get down to serious business. I'm not talking about politics or sports. I'm talking about collecting old rare books.

I started about three years ago. My subject of interest is the Northwest Coast. This is what Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska were called 200 years and more ago. Of course, then the only political entity was Alaska, under the administration of the Russian American Company and the leadership of its governor, Alexander Baranov.

There was no Oregon, Washington or British Columbia. In fact, when Baranov fought against the Sitka Tlingits to establish his capital at New Archangel, in 1804, there wasn't any other settler community between Sitka and San Francisco. That's a distance of close to 1,500 miles.

Before a Boston ship captain sailed around the Horn and into the Pacific on the journey to Alaska, he would have told his wife and friends that he was going to the Northwest Coast to trade manufactured goods for sea otter skins. After filling his hold, he would have sailed to Hawaii for provisions and then on to Canton, China, to barter for teas - avidly desired by the Americans in Boston and along the eastern seaboard.

When a person is young, he or she is apt to be more interested in love than old books, but as one grows older, let's say into his 60s or even a step further into his 70s, there is often a different set of feelings that entrance and beguile the mind and imagination.

Nature, they say, abhors a vacuum. Collecting rare and beautiful things fills a need to be active and involved.

Sometimes a person gets carried away though.

And spending for and acquiring precious things almost has the aura of a gambler playing in Las Vegas.

There is the recent story of the man in Oregon who, over the last 30 years or so, collected written material on the Lewis and Clark expedition.

He was an ordinary working man with a menial job, but he became an expert in his avocation. To buy books, he mortgaged his house, took out loans and ran up the debt on his credit cards.

After his books were valued as being worth many, many hundreds of thousands of dollars, he donated them to a university. They paid him a generous amount to cover his expenses, and gave him a desk for his personal use at the library, where the collection was located for - as a university might say - "in perpetuity."

My interest got me to reading about the history of that early time in Alaska in the late 1700s and early 1800s. I have started to write about it and have completed one short book about an early Boston man trading on the coast. His name was Joseph O'Cain.

My son and I have just completed a more ambitious task, a new biography of Alexander Baranov and his times, called "Alexander Baranov and a Pacific Empire."

I love to go to book shows. I've been to California fairs three times. I'd like to go to Boston in November.

You get to know dealers from all over the world. It is something like the fish business, where in the 1960s and '70s everyone seemed to know each other.

• Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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