Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Go Ahead - Get Lost

Reprinted with permission from the Valley News. May not be reproduced or distributed. Photos by me.

By Krista Langlois
Valley News Staff Writer

I always get lost driving to the Bookmill. This time, I take a wrong
turn and wind up on a leafy dead end street dominated by what could
pass for a castle: a brightly painted Victorian home surrounded by a
whimsical wooden fence and what appears to be either a lipsticked
mannequin or a blow-up sex doll peering down from a turret window.

Back on track, I pass a half-dozen roadside stands hawking
strawberries and asparagus, a Colonial cemetery, a trout hatchery
bearing my mother's maiden name (Bitzer) and at least two more
Victorian-era homes “desecrated” by fabulous magenta and turquoise
paint, prayer flags flying, stately porches sagging, yards taken over
by summer vines and overgrown crab apple trees. Then I round a corner
and pull into the parking lot, relieved.

“Books you don't need in a place you can't find,” is the Montague
Bookmill's slogan, and I find it true on both counts. Within 10
minutes of finding myself no longer geographically lost, I'm mentally
lost instead, wandering dazed through room upon room, shelf upon shelf
of books in this 1834 gristmill-turned-book-lover’s paradise.

Before I can even get my bearings, I've spent $50 on a new journal, a
thesaurus, an iced coffee, a book about Alaska's Inside Passage and a
stack of one-of-a-kind greeting cards that I couldn't pass up. All of
which I was perfectly content to live without before I got here, but
which will make my life on the way home feel just a little more full.
There's also a hammock in my trunk, and I know exactly where I’m going
to hang it when I get home. I envision warm Sunday afternoons in the
hammock, lounging in the shade, sipping a mojito with mint leaves from
my garden and devouring a new book that takes me out of this humid
Vermont summer and back to the cool wilds of Alaska.

This is what the Bookmill does. It evokes dreams. It invites you to
lose yourself.

The Bookmill, in Montague, Mass., has been around in its current
incarnation for almost 25 years. It's been featured in The New York
Times and the Los Angeles Times (which recently called it “the world's
finest bookstore”), and it’s found its way onto the “thank you” pages
of books by authors such as John Hodgman of The Daily Show. Writers,
successful and not, are drawn to this place. They return day after day
to craft their words in front of the industrial-sized windows, tapping
a foot on the worn wooden floorboards while searching for the right
phrase, thoughtfully chewing their lip, gazing at the waterfall that
tumbles outside. Yet despite all the attention, the best part of going
to the Bookmill is the feeling that you've stumbled upon a secret.

A half dozen other businesses have hung their shingles at the Montague
Mill complex as well, rounding out the experience. There's the Lady
Killigrew Cafe, which serves reasonably priced, locally sourced food
and beverages. It's as likely to attract a local carpenter on his way
to work (for a coffee) or from work (for a beer) as it is budding
literary types who start a tab, plug in their Macs and sit for hours
listening to Bob Dylan or banjo music on the speakers. Or the cyclists
passing by on the Franklin County Bikeway; students from the nearby
five-college area who come to study; bikers who pause their Harleys
for a bite to eat.

There's Turn It Up!, a used music and movie store boasting
knowledgeable employees (who might double as DJs at the local
independent radio station, 93.9) who will gladly tell you, if you ask,
how the afro beat music on the Fela Kuti CD you're holding sprang from
political discontent in Nigeria and was the inspiration for a recent
Tony-award-winning Broadway show.

Then there's the Louise Minks Art Studio and Sawmill River Arts, and
The Night Kitchen, with its beautiful outdoor deck in the summer and a
cozy candle-lit dining room in the winter. There you can order things
like Grand Marnier and Honey Glazed Quail, Tarragon-Stuffed Pan Seared
Trout or Spring Carrot, Green Apple and Ginger Soup to unwind after a
long day of people watching. Reservations are recommended, and bring
your credit card; if you eat at just one fancy restaurant a year, this
one's a good choice.

The real attraction, though -- the venue around which the others have
sprung up -- is undoubtedly the Bookmill. In the business of
publishing and selling books, it's widely accepted that independent
bookstores are simply not viable business models these days. The
onslaught against such places has come in stages: first, the threat of
big-box stores like Barnes and Noble, then online sellers such as, followed by e-Books and Kindles. Bookstores all over the
country have crumbled in the wake of this tri-pronged attack.

But the Bookmill seems not to have paid attention to discouraging
national trends. Tucked away in a cluster of oaks and cottonwoods on a
forgotten backroad, perched on the steep banks of the Sawmill River,
it looks as successful now as it did when I first came here a decade

“We've become a sort of destination,” said screenwriter Susan
Shilliday (Legends of the Fall), who's owned the Bookmill for
three-and-a-half years and regularly mans the cash register. “It's
partly that, partly the great relationship we have with the Lady
Killigrew and the Night Kitchen, and we have very loyal locals as

Shilliday was first introduced to the Bookmill on a trip from
California, and she fell in love. There's an indefinable quality to
the place, she says, something about the books, the cafe, the river,
“being out in the middle of nowhere.” So when the business went up for
sale, she decided to buy it.

“This is my first business endeavor of any kind,” she said with a
laugh. “It's been great fun … I'm sort of figuring it out as I go.”

Selling about 90 percent used books and the rest half-priced
overstocks, the Bookmill doesn't just seem to be thriving to the eyes
of an outsider -- it actually is.

“Nobody's going to make a bundle doing this,” Shilliday said. “But it
is viable. It's a lot easier for a used book store in this economy,
because if book lovers have to cut back and need to save a little
money, they buy used books.”

The mesh of businesses that have found their niche in this magnificent
old building also helps keep the bookstore alive. As does the fact
that it attracts both travelers and locals from every walk of life.
And that it hosts live concerts in the summer, movie nights in the
winter, author readings and the like. And finally, that the Bookmill
seems content to remain a hidden treasure. Despite its lofty status
among bibliophiles, there's little promotion besides word of mouth. So
even people who have lived within its radius for years can still have
the pleasure of discovering the Mill.

One of those people is Kurtis Graf, of Brattleboro. “I've lived in
Brattleboro for eight years,” said a wide-eyed, smiling Graf, “and I
never knew this was here!”

“I like it very much,” he continued, peeking over my shoulder at the
Lady Killigrew menu. “I like the idea of the combination of the
bookstore, the little cafe and the river. I was hooked by the idea
before I even got here, and now I'm enthralled.”

Even for those who have visited before, there are delights around
every corner, from the newspaper articles and ripped-out journal pages
plastering the bathroom walls to the intriguing network of narrow
hallways and twisting stairwells. There are clever signs, cozy nooks,
intriguing architecture. “Don't look for our catalogue online; we're
not that bookstore,” says, eschewing the
trend even among small booksellers to stay in business by offering
their wares over the Internet. “But if we can’t find the book you’re
looking for, we’ll find you a better one you didn’t know you wanted.”

In today's convenient world, where you can order anything and
everything online at any hour of day, maybe this is what people yearn
for: the pleasure of browsing, exploring, not knowing what you'll
find. Not all people, but those who love books and small towns; those
who are fond of history and discovery; people who want to feel the
smoothness of a printed page on their fingertips, breathe in that
library-smell, and then wedge the volume firmly in a bookshelf and
remember the morning at the Bookmill when they bought it for $6.50.

For families, there's a vibrant kids' section, but the cascading falls
and clear pools of the Sawmill River provide all the summer fun a kid
could ask for. Natural rockslides, grassy islands and shady overhangs
offer hours of swimming, creature hunting and make-believe.

This is not a place to stop for an hour while on your way somewhere
else. The Montague Mill is its own destination, well worth the
hour-and-a-half drive from the Upper Valley, and if you decide to make
a weekend of it, all the better.

There are plenty of options, indoors or out, for an overnight stay in
the area (indoor pick: the Hotel Northampton; outdoor: Barton Cove
campground). Other places to check out in the area include the Magic
Wings Butterfly Conservatory, Yankee Candle factory store (which, if
you've never been, is much more than a store that sells candles), the
Smith College greenhouse and botanical garden, and plenty of funky
little towns to explore.


Krista Langlois can be reached at or 603-727-3305.


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  2. I love this story... 1st I have been to the castle house for a Halloween party and it's really a magical place... but nothing can come close to a live show and a nice beer @ the Bookmill...I love New England's small towns and the fun things you can explore there...


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