With sunny 30-degree days becoming less and less rare, early March proves to be a great time to visit the Montague Bookmill. The Bookmill is a conglomerate of three 180-year-old buildings overlooking the Sawmill River in Montague, just 25 minutes outside of Amherst. Converted from an industrial site to a bookstore in 1987, the area now hosts an eclectic mix of businesses — a local art store, a music and video store, a cafe, a restaurant and, of course, the used book store (which was recently acquired by screenwriter Susan Shilliday of “thirtysomething.”)
I had heard rumors of the Bookmill before — only praise — but I had little idea of what it was; my expectations didn’t reach beyond “pretty cool” and “should be on that Amherst to-do list.” This past Saturday, I woke up wanting to be back at an old comfortable spot on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Palos Verdes, California. Impossible, of course, but I still felt the need to escape the Amherst bubble for just a while. Without going so far as to look it up online, I took my chances and set off for this fabled location in rural Mass. The beautiful, winding drive through the snow-sodden, tree-covered hills provided a respite from the chaotic activity from Amherst, foreshadowing the otherworldliness I would find at the Bookmill. The trip had the effect of extracting me from routine, from the normality of Saturdays.
Post-parking, my friend and I zig-zagged around the pools of dirt-infiltrated melting snow, making our way to the first door in sight — the one to Sawmill River Arts. The wood floors creaked a little as we wandered around, looking at everything from handcrafted earrings to glass-blown drinking glasses to knitted dolls. Proceeds from sales at the store go to fight AIDS in Africa.
But something that sounded like James Taylor was wafting upwards, making its way through the old wood floors and drawing our curiosity. Back outside and around down the hill, we found Turn It Up!, a music and video store, where an old shaggy black dog greeted us. The now-rare option to physically buy music and DVDs (especially from a section titled “The best and the worst of the ‘80s”) made it comforting and fun, bringing back childhood memories of hours spent in Blockbuster.
The building across the way, now closer to the river, holds the famous Bookmill shop, with the motto “Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find.” We walked through the stacks, catching glimpses of the waterfall and melting creek down below through each window, and eventually meeting the door to the attached Lady Killigrew Cafe.
In the cafe, we could hear low-volume folk music and conversation accompanied by the occasional clicks of typing. The open, split-level cafe offers, among many other things, a goat cheese and pepper sandwich, maple flavored milk, various pastries — and of course, a view of the river, a place to work or relax. We ordered hot chocolate with maple whipped cream and chocolate chip cookies, and walked outside to the wooden deck we had spotted earlier. The deck has open-bulb string lights overhead and becomes a coveted seating area once the weather gets warmer. Balancing our plates on the railing, we ate and watched the frigid, almost glossy water fall across the ice and rocks half covered in snow. The location highlighted the aesthetic advantages the cold provides, and assuming that the Bookmill’s beauty holds in any weather, it seems like this would be a place to enjoy the best of all four seasons.
A door at the back of the deck led to the restaurant, The Alvah Stone, which offers weekend brunch, Wednesday through Friday and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. We were invited to walk around the rustic dinning room, with tables for two lining the riverside of the restaurant. And, most importantly, the food looks wonderful and fresh.
The Bookmill is more than a place to get lost for the day — it hosts a variety of events, including a weekly winter movie night (called “Free Films for the Frozen”) and musical guests.
Maybe it was the unusual respite from the cold weather or the friendly employees, but on Saturday morning the Bookmill filled me with happiness, curiosity and the hope of spring approaching. And I’m not alone in my awe of the Bookmill: In the past few years, the Bookmill has been reviewed and praised by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe. It’s an often-overlooked gem, so removed from the rest of the world that it becomes a place where time almost ceases to exist. Put it on the list.