Why the Montague Bookmill Is One of the Most Magical Places in Massachusetts

Please note that businesses, attractions, and events throughout New England have been closed and/or canceled in response to the COVID-19 health crisis. Please travel responsibly, and check with individual businesses and event organizers before making travel plans.

As of mid-May 2020: The Montague Bookmill is closed until further notice.

On the banks of the Sawmill River in Montague, Massachusetts, only a short drive from Northampton and Amherst, sits my own personal be-all and end-all of bookstores. In 2012, Yankee called the Montague Bookmill “the true definition of ‘destination’ bookstore.” The key word being destination: The c. 1842 Montague Mill holds not only one of the best used bookstores in Massachusetts but also a number of other enticements that, combined, pack enough punch to fill an entire day.

Yet despite the modern-day appeal of its tenants — which include a music shop and an artists’ collective — the Montague Mill has held on to many charming architectural details from its grist mill past, and its rustic rooms have become revered by many. Writers and academics frequent the bookstore and the adjacent Lady Killigrew Café, as do local farmers, musicians, and artists. (Taylor Swift even showed up once.)

I worked at the Lady Killigrew as a college student: pressing paninis, serving coffees, and learning the mill building inside and out. Nowadays, I often stop by to chat (and to grab one of the Lady K’s killer cold-brews, of course). Here’s my insider’s perspective on why the Montague Bookmill is one of the most magical places in Massachusetts.

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Early morning at the Montague Bookmill in Montague, Massachusetts.

Katherine Keenan

Why the Montague Bookmill Is One of the Most Magical Places in Massachusetts

Roll along one of the back roads leading to the Montague Bookmill (which, FYI, is local shorthand for the entire building), and you may find yourself following a bumper sticker that’s become ubiquitous in western Massachusetts: “Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find.” Seeing this, however, is no guarantee you won’t get lost.

The first time I visited the fabled mill was during my sophomore year at a local college. A friend knew “the back way” and insisted I’d love it there. So we rolled the windows down, wound our way through farmland and fall foliage, and reveled in the feeling of escape.

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A common sight on western Massachusetts car bumpers.

Katherine Keenan

The moment I set my eyes on the Montague Bookmill, I was smitten by the expansive, multipaned old windows that compose most of the rear wall of the building, overlooking the river. In the summer, it takes two people to lift and secure one of the sashes — a worthwhile endeavor due to the immediate breath of breeze and the sound of burbling water below.

The Montague Bookmill claims to house over 40,000 books, which rise from the floor in piles, sit atop shelves, and line the walls. The walls are a medley of materials: Whitewashed wooden boards jut up against industrial details from the grist mill days. There’s a section for everything, and there’s always a friendly face at the front desk happy to point you toward the right one. What’s more, this bookstore practically begs you to stay awhile, with comfy chairs and couches perfect for curling up on.

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When polled, a majority of the Bookmill employees declared the red chair in the corner to be their favorite spot in the whole building.

Katherine Keenan

First, a little background

Though the faded blue sign at the top of the hill reads “The Montague Mill,” the structure appears on the National Register of Historic Places as the Alvah Stone Mill, as it was originally named for the first owner. Until the early 1930s, the building was used for grinding whole grain into flour. When Martin Machine Co. bought it, grinding ceased, and turbines were installed to facilitate the production of hydraulic marking machines (used to mark serial numbers or names onto products such as golf clubs and tennis rackets).

The Montague Bookmill was first dreamed up by a man named Jim Murphy, who along with Allen Ross purchased the building in 1987. A deck was built, and the interior was redesigned. In 1992, the café opened. Today the entire property is locally owned, with each of the businesses having its own proprietor.

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Susan Shilliday, owner of the Bookmill and a former screenwriter. Her favorite part about her job? The people.

Katherine Keenan

What you’ll find at the Montague Mill today

  • The Montague Bookmill
    • Over 40,000 used books, a quirky staircase, knickknacks, jolly employees, and plenty of comfortable seating. Plus, the coolest T-shirts.
  • The Lady Killigrew
    • A café and pub named after a rebellious female pirate. They serve up a mean coffee, local loose-leaf tea, creative paninis and salads, and oodles of peanut noodles. Also: a full wine and beer list.
  • The Alvah Stone
    •  A fine dining restaurant with a rustic atmosphere, impeccable cocktails, and a well-curated menu (and a “We Choose, You Eat” option if you can’t decide). I could eat their brown butter cornbread with maple bacon butter … forever.
  • Turn It Up!
    • A music store with a great selection of CDs, DVDs, and vinyl records, for those who still like having a “hard copy.”
  • Sawmill River Arts
    • A gallery with a wide variety of fine art and crafts. During all open hours, at least one of the local member artists is available to chat.
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Not your average chop salad: The Alvah Stone version includes kale, escarole, Napa cabbage, smoked gouda, pecans, bacon, Honeycrisp apple, and a pickled ginger vinaigrette.

Katherine Keenan

When to visit the Montague Bookmill

Anytime — and here’s why:

In the fall, the cupola atop the mill building juts through a canopy of leaves. Crab apples drop from branches, and the view outside the windows shifts toward rosy/golden hues. The Lady Killigrew starts serving hot apple cider; the Alvah Stone switches to its fall menu.

When winter sets in, it’s the perfect time to pull a book from the shelves and sink into one of the Bookmill’s many window-side chairs. There, as the snow falls, you can sip a mug of locally grown tea from the Lady Killigrew — like “Murder of Colds” from Full Kettle Farm in Sunderland. In the evening, head down to the Alvah Stone for a hearty meal, a glass of wine, or a smartly designed cocktail.

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In winter, the Lady Killigrew Café serves hot chocolate with — wait for it — maple whipped cream.

Katherine Keenan

When the cold weather comes to a close, the ice melts at the top of the river and the river flows at high speed. Take in the sounds of spring from either of the outdoor patios, or wander among the books, records, CDs, arts, and crafts.

In the summer, the trees form a green canopy over the outdoor seating areas. Tourists, bikers, and locals flock to the mill, meaning it can be difficult to find a parking spot on weekends. But it’s worth it. If it gets hot out, wander down the hill and dip your toes into the river to cool off. (As the story goes, on extra-hot days the café staff used to ride dishpans down the falls.)

Ready to take a look inside? Here’s some visual evidence of what makes the Montague Bookmill one of the best day-trip destinations in Massachusetts.

A Photo Tour of the Montague Bookmill

The Montague Bookmill Massachusetts

The Montague Bookmill in Montague, Massachusetts.

Katherine Keenan

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No matter the season, enormous windows make the Montague Bookmill feel bright and cozy.

Katherine Keenan

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Just past this doorway to the fiction room is the staff recommendation shelf, which always holds a few fantastic picks.

Katherine Keenan

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Montague Bookmill employee Bill Johnston. If he’s working, you can bet that there’s fiddle music playing.

Katherine Keenan

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One of the Bookmill’s claims to fame is that author-comedian John Hodgman wrote many of his books in the adjoining café, where enormous windows make for excellent working — or daydreaming — light.

Katherine Keenan

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Longtime Lady Killigrew employee Kelly “Killer” Rehorka brings out an order of peanut udon noodles and a warm brown rice salad (reportedly the same salad that Taylor Swift ordered when she was here).

Katherine Keenan

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The café’s peanut-ginger udon noodles, served cold and sprinkled with delightful toppings. (While I can never finish a large order alone, I always appreciate the leftovers come midnight.)

Katherine Keenan

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A retro cabinet at the Lady Killigrew Café holds gluten-free baked goods and vegan cupcakes from Café Evolution in Florence, Massachusetts.

Katherine Keenan

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Lingering around the Montague Mill are little reminders of simpler times, including this sign at the Lady Killigrew Café.

Katherine Keenan

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Only a window and a swinging door separate the café from the bookstore. Patrons are welcome to bring their coffee, food, and even their beer while they browse the shelves.

Katherine Keenan

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During my two years working at the café, I saw the Bookmill in many different lights, both literally and figuratively. Unbeatable, however, is the Bookmill in early morning.

Katherine Keenan

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Though there are other Turn It Up! stores scattered around western New England, it’s hard to beat the riverside location of the one in the Bookmill.

Katherine Keenan

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According to its website, this is “possibly the friendliest gallery you’ll ever visit.”

Katherine Keenan

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The Alvah Stone’s dining room: Outside, rural New England beauty; inside, fine dining.

Katherine Keenan

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A mouthwatering spread from the fall menu at the Alvah Stone. From top left: the steam bun, the brown butter cornbread, the lamb chops, the crab cake, the chop salad, and the Stratton cocktail.

Katherine Keenan

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What better way to end a day at the Montague Bookmill than with a salted caramel custard, courtesy of the Alvah Stone?

Katherine Keenan

Other attractions near the Montague Bookmill

Have you ever been to the Montague Bookmill?

This post was first published in 2018 and has been updated.

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