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Meeting Dee Longenbaugh: A ‘Dee-lightful’ experience

By Rhonda McBride 10:23 PM December 30, 2013

Bookstore owner, history buff, map collector, raconteur

JUNEAU - Dee Longenbaugh of Juneau turned 80 years young this month. And this is one of those cases where the “years young” turn of phrase, instead of “years old,” is no euphemism and fits perfectly.

Longenbaugh owns The Observatory bookstore in downtown Juneau and still takes an active role in running her rare books and maps business. She manages to walk back and forth to her shop on Franklin Street at a brisk pace. Photojournalist Todd Hardesty and I had a hard time keeping up with her.

The thought has probably crossed many a Juneau-ite’s mind: She’s the elder we all want to grow up to be — someone who is forever young in mind and spirit.

When I first met Longenbaugh over pancakes at the Capital Cafe in the Baranof Hotel, I was smitten within the first few minutes of conversation. Talking with her is like opening a bunch of Chinese boxes. Inside one box, you find another box, and then another box. With Longenbaugh, every story leads to another story, and another.

In our KTVA television profile of Longenbaugh, there’s just not enough time to share the wealth of her knowledge. Remember, she not only collects books but reads them too.

But I’ll share the contents of one of the Chinese boxes I opened. This came from a weighty leather-bound federal report written in the 1900s about some explorers who got lost on the Yukon River.

“To make things really bad,” Longenbaugh said, “a bear got into their little scanty food supply and took a side of bacon, and that was just about the end of it.”

Or so it seemed to the explorers who wondered how much longer they could survive. Lucky for them, an Alaska Native hunter killed the bear. When he butchered it, he found the bacon inside, something that definitely wasn’t indigenous to the bear’s diet.

“And he said, ‘Ah-ha. There were white men around here,’ so he went off looking for them,” Longenbaugh said, laughing. The federal report explained how the hunter took them to his village, fed the explorers and nursed them back to health so they could live to tell the tale.

These are the kinds of gems Longenbaugh liberally scatters in conversation at her bookstore. The tourists grab them up, along with directions to various attractions and restaurants.

But Longenbaugh is beloved by the locals as well. While we were gathering footage at her store, we met Garrett Smithberg, a young man who works at another Juneau bookstore.

In this day and age, such a friendship is pretty rare, with young folks more likely to turn to an app than an octogenarian.

This May-December friendship is pretty special to Smithberg, who at 20 longs to travel the world and soaks in every bit of information he can from Longenbaugh about her travels in search of rare maps.

He said he’s learned a lot about history from Longenbaugh, but the most important lessons have been about life itself.

“I would say the biggest one is to be adventurous,” Smithberg said. “Dee is extremely adventurous in her pursuits and her travels and her ideas. In short, that’s taught me to be adventurous about life.”

What attracted me to Longenbaugh is that she is a recognized expert on early Russian American history and early Alaska maps — expertise gained mostly through a personal journey, marked by a relentless pursuit of knowledge.

She is a type who is not unusual to Alaska, where you often meet people who get interested in a subject, only to find there’s very little written about it. So they take off into undiscovered country to become self-taught experts.

Longenbaugh was a doctor’s wife in Sitka, a mother of two boys and two girls. It seems her passion for Russian American history stemmed partly from a desire to escape the world of the housewife — but also a natural curiosity about a community rich with historical landmarks. She opened a small bookstore there as well.

She will talk with you about any subject except one, the death of her husband in 1985. They were on a vacation in Mexico when a tree fell on their car and crushed him to death.

Her daughter Betsy believes her mother’s love of books and learning carried her through those tough times. Longenbaugh downplays any mention of hardship, however, and seems slightly annoyed to be a subject of an interview at all.

But like the tourists and locals who find themselves at The Observatory bookstore, inhaling the smells of old paper and history and marveling at old maps which don’t even show Alaska’s existence, I leave feeling that I’ve experienced something authentically Alaskan.

Oh, and what did I buy? A Capital Cookery cookbook, published in 1983 and featuring family favorites from Juneau’s best cooks.

OK.  I’ll share one recipe with you. I’ll post it on my  Facebook page: Barley mushroom casserole, from former first lady Bella Hammond.


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