Writers of Franklin County: Reading and writing at the Montague Bookmill

  • The view, when you happen to look up from a riverside table in The Lady Killigrew, beats pretty much any view you might have out your office window. For The Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • The Sawmill River rushes past The Montague Bookmill, providing an invigorating and stimulating soundtrack for writing. For The Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • The presence of so many varied books at The Montague Bookmill encourages you to enter the temple of language, kneel down and utter your own prayer. For The Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • Trish Crapo

For The Recorder
Friday, March 31, 2017

About a decade ago, back before I had a studio space outside my home, I used to drive out to The Montague Bookmill sometimes to write. Every now and again I still do. Because even when you know you’re paying rent on a perfectly good space meant to house and encourage your most important work, sometimes what you really need is a change of scenery. You need to escape.

The Bookmill is the best possible combination of quiet workspace and enticing distraction — with two restaurants that, between them, serve food every day, all day, in case writing makes you hungry. The names of the restaurants are like characters from a novel. The restaurant on the lower floor, the Alvah Stone, is named for the mill’s first proprietor, who ran Stone’s Gristmill there in the mid 1800s. The café on the first floor, The Lady Killigrew, is named for a 17th century gentlewoman from Suffolk who was accused of piracy during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Throughout the rambling mill building, there are mismatched old chairs set in pleasing arrangements facing out toward the Sawmill River. Some of the chairs seem so intimately turned toward each other that you hesitate to interrupt. The big upstairs room, which you can access through the steep narrow internal stairs or by the street-level covered footbridge, has a large table and several smaller ones where you can spread out your papers and/or set up your laptop.

If you bring your laptop to The Lady Killigrew, you won’t be alone. On a recent workday afternoon, there were from three to five of us, depending on when I looked up, tapping away on our keyboards.

It’s easy to write
at The Bookmill

Maybe it’s the presence of all those books, enticing you to enter the temple of language, kneel down and utter your own prayer. Or, conversely, to bust open language’s stable door and let all the horses free.

Maybe it’s the river. The constant sound of water rushing over the dam seems the sound of industry. The water is busy, relentlessly going somewhere. The sound it makes as it passes is invigorating and stimulating to the mind.

Especially if you snag a table by the window in the Lady Killigrew, the view when you happen to look up beats pretty much any view you might have out your office window (if you have an office window). The water slides stunningly brisk and bright over the ledge, then pools at the bottom, circling back on itself in eddies before it winds away through a narrowing stand of trees.

But even a seat along the back wall offers a nice glimpse of the outdoors. And the long common table that stands between the restaurant-side booths and the riverside tables makes a democratic statement that’s nice to hear: “Sit; we’re in this together. Get out your laptop, let’s write.” The clatter of dishware and low hum of people talking, punctuated now and again by bursts of laughter, lays down a multi-layered background track I find productive rather than distracting.

The thing that can be distracting at The Bookmill is the books.

Because even as they offer solid reassurance that books can in fact be written, sometimes they call to me like sirens — the ones Odysseus heard, that lure you to them, not the wailing emergency horns that send you away.

When I’m at The Bookmill, all of a sudden I need to know the history of tattoos. I need to read an autobiography of Greta Garbo or leaf through the quietly sensual photographs of Brazilian photographer Eva Rubinstein. Or, I realize I never read Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, “A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House,” and now seems the perfect time to immerse myself in the story of a charismatic president who put the interests of the common man before those of big business.

The other day, I paid a meager $3.95 for a beautiful Everyman’s Library pocket edition of Dante’s “Inferno.” There are so many great things going on in that one sentence that I have to stop and illuminate them.

First of all: Everyman’s Library is just a great idea. That every man (and woman) should have a library of good books is a beautifully populist assertion. Even before they were marked down at The Bookmill, Everyman’s Library editions were intended to be affordable. Because people who read books are not elites. They are explorers, shape shifters. Their minds are hothouses for the next new idea, the next story — like maybe the tale of a middle-aged guy who finds himself in “a dark wood where the straight way was lost” and spends a piteous night there. And after several disturbing run-ins with various animals that terrify and confuse him, runs into the poet Virgil who offers to show him a better way through the wood and ends up leading him through Hell.

Then, the fact that you can carry a book around in your pocket is radical. What Everyman’s Library is telling you by printing books at such a small size is that you need this book not just at home, where you can pour yourself a hot cup of coffee or a nice, stiff drink, put your feet up and read but you need it out in the world as well.

You might find yourself with a little unexpected time on your hands — maybe your kid’s soccer practice runs longer than usual (I used to keep slim volumes of poetry in the map compartments of my car doors for this very reason) — or the train to New York City is late. What better way to spend those bonus moments than to sock in a few more stanzas of Dante’s “Inferno?”

Or a couple of pages of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” which I also picked up at The Bookmill in a two-volume Everyman’s Library edition for $1.95 a piece. Have I already read “War and Peace?” Yes. But the copy I read, even in paperback, weighs about as much as a couple of bricks. And it doesn’t fit in my pocket.

Okay, sure, we can read stuff on our phones. Most of us have cellphones in our pockets almost all the time these days. And the Internet ensures that we can access to pretty much anything we want to read. Every day I binge-read the most current political news on my phone, scrolling through the newest Russian contacts, the contentious Congressional hearings and the false accusations until I am lost in a dark wood myself and need to close that app and pick up a book — an actual book, with actual pages — and find myself in another world.

Where to find it

The Montague Bookmill, 440 Greenfield Rd., Montague. Phone: 413-367-9206. Contact: susan@montaguebookmill.com

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She is always looking for poets, writers and artists to interview for her columns. She can be reached at tcrapo@mac.com