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Books, board games, bliss

Pioneer Valley bookstore prides itself on quirks and homespun character

Of the many quirks in the Montague Bookmill, a bookstore and cafe just outside Amherst and Northampton, perhaps the most serendipitous are on its bathroom walls. Hundreds of clippings and pinups vie for attention: ''Author Mailer's Wife Fighting For Her Life," blares the headline of the yellowed New York Post article from 1960, above the subhead stating that Norman Mailer denies stabbing her in the back and abdomen with a pen knife. ''President Frank Zappa in 1992! The Only Sane Choice," proclaims the poster directly above the toilet. Then there is the Star exclusive photo of Daryl Hannah's fake finger, Abbie Hoffman urging political activism in young people, and a Hungarian transportation map.

Approaching the tiny village of Montague, one feels a distinct shift in time. Paper mills loom over the river, and unmarked roads jut into villages of low, widely spaced houses. Inside the Bookmill, a modest red building perched on the bank of the Sawmill River, across the creaky wood floor, one finds neat bookshelves with carefully handwritten labels, beneath low ceilings and exposed wooden beams. Sofas and chairs, some threadbare, sit in front of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the river. Wheels bolted into the floor at odd intervals serve as reminders of the building's past incarnations -- first a gristmill and later a foundry with marking machinery, which stamped, among other things, Louisville slugger bats. (The wheels, in those days, controlled the inflow of water from the river, the old mill's power source.)

True to the Bookmill's motto, ''Books you don't need in a place you can't find," the selection is pleasingly random. Along with bestsellers by Edith Wharton, Margaret Atwood, and Joyce Carol Oates, are a handbook on Marxist minstrels, a guide to paddling the Gulf Islands, and a guide to the works of Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf titled, ''Reading Alcoholisms."

''We're more of a construct than a shop," said shop owner and manager David Lovelace. ''It's the beauty, the spirit of the place that draws people." He paused for a second, then allowed, ''A certain portion of the public is confused by the place."

On a recent snowy Friday afternoon, a handful of visitors lolled around the store, a few poking through the shelves, a couple of students working on laptops. (In a nod to the 21st century, the Bookmill and cafe offer wireless Internet access.) Bonnie Weiss of Northampton and Lyndell Schwartz, visiting from Las Vegas, carried their books and mugs of coffee to chairs by a window. Weiss propped her feet on a trunk in front of her chair and opened the gardening book in her lap, while Schwartz examined a Frommer's guide to the Bahamas.

''I don't do cold, but this is a nice place to spend a wintry afternoon," Schwartz said.

The Bookmill is much changed, but also much the same since it opened in the late 1980s, after the last of the marking machines was cleared out. The book selection during the first few years was skeletal, recalled Lovelace, who has managed the store since 1991. A carpenter who holds an English degree, Lovelace helped renovate the mill and slowly built the book stock through finds at book fairs, library sales, and publishing house remainders, which supplemented the books that patrons would bring in to sell or trade. Today, the titles lean heavily toward the liberal arts and academic, including fiction and literary criticism, military history, law, and theology. Lovelace is careful to stock the cookbooks and children's books that are popular with patrons, but he makes no apologies for not catering to every taste.

''I stay away from self-help and psychology titles," he said. ''They're boring."

In the 1990s, the downstairs space -- now the site of The Night Kitchen, an upscale restaurant -- had a successful turn as a music venue, bringing in punk, folk, and rockabilly acts.

The combination of music and books gradually attracted students from Amherst and Northampton, who still make up a good portion of the Bookmill's clientele.

''Since we're in the middle of nowhere, students have always been important in getting the word out about the place," Lovelace said. ''College students are like fruit flies, and we're always trying to attract the next generation."

The bookstore has also garnered some unexpected attention over the years. Take the bathroom walls. As Lovelace accumulated books, he found old clippings inside many of them, and decided to use them for decoration.

''When I'm bored -- say, some Tuesday in February -- I'll put them up on the walls," he said. The collection has grown well into the hundreds. To Lovelace's surprise, he has found pictures of the walls on the Internet. The wall art also attracted the attention of Found magazine, which held a reading there last September.

The cafe, once part of the Bookmill operation, is now officially a separate business, although there is no physical separation between the two. Called the Lady Killigrew Café & Pub, it hosts weekly game nights and indie rock shows. The owners, two recent college graduates, intended it to serve as a community space.

''There's not a lot of public space in Montague," said one owner, Matthew Latkiewicz. ''In Amherst and Northampton, there is, but not here. That's a driving force behind the place, to just get people together."

Before the November election, the Bookmill and cafe took part in a get-out-the-vote campaign organized by a town resident. On election night, the cafe stayed open for people to watch the returns.

''It was pretty loud at first," Lovelace recalled, ''but it got increasingly quiet throughout the night."

With the cafe, bookstore, and downstairs restaurant in full swing -- as well as an artisan shop, painter's studio, and antique store occupying space on the same lot -- Lovelace says now is a good point in the place's history.

''The cafe is a perfect match for the bookstore," he said. ''They both appeal to the same college-student market. The restaurant is upscale, and serves the academics and the parents of the college students. All the pieces are there."

While the Bookmill might be doing better now, in business terms, than it had in earlier times, it still takes pride in its quirky charm -- and the fact that it's out of the way.

As Lovelace put it, ''We're not particularly convenient, we're not particularly efficient, but we're beautiful."

Ami Albernaz is a freelance writer in Boston.

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