Joseph and I are lucky to have a personal peek into the rare book world. We love when collectors and dealers alike bring us books or call to talk about a rare book they've found. The history behind who owned the books in the past is just as important as the books themselves; sometimes the one who owned the book is what makes the book important. Being traditional book binders it's fun to examine how the old books were made. Last week Joseph bound a book that was nearly 400 years old; the paper quality and the type quality of that book was amazing, and nothing like you see in today's modern mass publications.
We want to share some of those fun stories with you; more importantly we want you to meet the people behind rare book dealing, the people who find rare treasures and small pieces of history found in rare books.
I had the pleasure to interview Dee Longenbaugh owner of The Observatory, located in Juneau Alaska. Take a look at her website HERE and if you're ever in the area stop by her shop! I hope you enjoy the interview as she shares her journey that also led her to find and sell antique maps!
Q: Tell me a brief history about yourself and your store.
A: I live in Juneau, Alaska, a small town of 32,000 that also happens to be the capital of Alaska. I have lived here and had my shop since 1992. In 1989 I decided to move home to New Mexico after 27 years in Sitka, Alaska, the old Russian capital about 90 miles from Juneau, both towns accessible only by air or water. I enjoyed Santa Fe enormously - made friends I still have, adored the weather (Southern Alaska is said to be the world's largest Northern Temperate Rain Forest), but after two years I missed Alaska terribly. This time I moved to Juneau as both my daughters and families live here.
Q: When did you open your shop and how did you decide on naming your shop The Observatory?
A: I began the shop in 1977 in Sitka and had no idea how to price and sell books. I had traveled a bit looking for books. It seemed every shop I went in had an owner who told me what a mistake I was making. However, I found a small old house in downtown Sitka that had 480 square feet of space, including a full bathroom. As I had 343 out-of-print books on Alaska, I bought a few shelves to go with a nice set my oldest son made me, and opened for business. The name of the shop, The Observatory, was yes, because I wanted a reminder of looking out at the horizon of the wooded islets in Sitka Sound, but also because I had always wanted an old sextant and could never figure out a reason to own one.
Q: What is your preferred genre? Do you only sell rare books?
A: Time went by and news of the first open shop (a part-time dealer in Juneau worked from his house) in Southeast Alaska made the rounds and the curious stopped by the shop. I was encouraged and in 1979 went to London for two weeks, planning to return with armloads of Captain Cook and George Vancouver, the English explorers who explored our area. Sadly, I had not realized the strength of the English pound versus the U.S. dollar meant I could could buy them cheaply in the U.S. Then one day I was having lunch in a posh little restaurant off the Strand in London and on the picnic table someone had left a leaflet about a map shop. It was not far, so I went there and met a charming young man who was also very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about selling maps of Alaska to someone who lived there. I spent a massive $2,000 and decided if no one wanted to buy them I would have Christmas presents for years to come. (We are still very good friends.) Back home, word soon got around that I had old maps and various visitors to Sitka came by. I found businesses were especially fond of old maps, which they had framed and hung on the walls. That made others want maps (law firms were especially competitive with each other and I was glad to oblige). So I got in the habit of the annual trips to Britain and Europe in general in search of more maps.
Somewhere along the way I attended a conference of IMCoS (International Map Collectors' Society), founded in Britain. The founders included Helen Wallis, head of the British Map Library division of the British Library and her good friend, Eila Campbell, instructor at Birkbeck College in London; both dear friends and charming. They made me feel so welcome I happily became accustomed to attending the annual meetings. The real genius of the organizers was to require the host country to supply the speakers, so along the way I have learned huge amounts of history of the various European countries, including places such as Zagreb, then the capital of Yugoslavia, now of Croatia. Last year the meeting was in Vienna; London the previous year.
Q: What is your attraction to old maps?
A: Old maps show us what our ancestors knew of the world, including its size. Maps are also totally visual so you need not know the language they're printed in. But, I also love old books concerning Alaska and Western Coastal Canada. I carry all the way from the second-hand used books to the true antiquarian, and do the same with maps. I work on the assumption that it's perfectly possible to have excellent taste and little money, as we all know the opposite is also true.
Q: Has the trade changed in our digital era?
A: I feel grateful to have met so many charming and laughter-inducing people in the Trade and as customers over the years. I do miss the excitement of the weekly map auctions at Christie's and Sotheby's in London, but times have changed and the manual typewriter is now no novelty; even the electric typewriter no longer thrills.