Growing up, I hated to read. It would never occur to me to go to a bookstore to hang out. Bookstores were, well, stores full of books and I had no use for books except those that were required for my classes. Getting books as a Christmas or birthday gift was almost as bad as getting clothes.
I honestly cannot say what changed for me in my first year of college. I took a small seminar class and our first text was Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. Maybe it was the teacher who demanded more from me than was ever demanded before; or maybe it was my classmates who were so smart and interesting and engaged; or maybe it was the text itself with its stunningly beautiful prose. Because of that book, I went to the Dartmouth Bookstore (voluntarily!) and bought every other book authored by Isak Dinesen. For the first time in my life, I read books that were not assigned to me.
Long story, short, I became an English major and a lover of books – their look, feel, smell. My favorite place to study – whether I was reading literature, writing essays or studying for an art history test – was the Sanborn Library, surrounded by books, shelved floor to ceiling. My poor nieces and nephew got books as Christmas gifts year after year. Why I thought they would appreciate them any more than I did at their age, I’m not sure!
One of my first jobs out of college was as an admission counselor at Deerfield Academy. For several winters, I would be tasked with reading hundreds of admission files. My favorite place to read was at The Montague Bookmill, located in the tiny, obscure town of Montague. In fact, the location is so obscure, the tagline for this small bookstore is, “Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find.” The Bookmill sells only used books, mostly academic, but they are confident that they can help you find whatever book you need. On their website, they state, “If we can’t find the book you’re looking for, we’ll find you a better one you didn’t know you wanted.”
The Bookmill is housed in a 1842 gristmill on the banks of the Sawmill River. Of course, it’s been renovated and restored over the years but it maintains its rustic charm: hardwood floors that creak with every step and many nooks and crannies, each with old, overstuffed chairs. As with many local bookstores, they have added a cafe and restaurant and they host poetry readings and music events. The river still rambles over the rocks right next to the store, lulling customer after customer to sleep in those big comfy chairs.
For years, I was a collector of Winnie the Pooh books and, of course, the older, the better. Every time I would go to the Bookmill to “work” I would lose myself among the shelves and shelves of used children’s books, looking for my next treasure. For years, any time I needed or wanted a book, I would go to The Bookmill first to see if they had it before heading to Barnes & Noble where I knew I could find it. I wanted to give the locals my business and the searching and finding process at The Bookmill was as much a part of the experience as the actual buying.
I was meeting with a student the other day from Montague. I asked her if The Bookmill was still there as I had not been to it in years. She said, “oh ya, it’s still there. It always will be.” She then volunteered that she never goes but it always seems to be busy. I was happy to hear that, especially in light of the struggles so many local booksellers have experienced it the last decade or so. It seems that many have broadened their “product” base to attract more and different patrons: cafes, evening entertainment, sale of gift items and toys. Given that the Bookmill has always dealt in used books, maybe they are in a niche that is protected somewhat; they are not necessarily competing with the retail giants in the ways that other local booksellers might be.
Whatever the reason The Bookmill has endured, I’m glad it has. I’ve not enjoyed the big, comfy chairs next to the rambling river in a few years. Seems it might be time to go back, not only to read, but now to write.