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A world tour of bookstore cafes

What better place to check out a new city than a warm, welcoming bookstore?

February 06, 2011|By Mark Vanhoenacker, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • The People's Recreation Community in Hong Kong has books banned in mainland China.
The People's Recreation Community in Hong Kong has books banned in… (Sebastien Stouffs )

After an espresso or two has kicked jet lag into the long grass, I find no better place to plot a course in a city than at an independent bookstore cafe. Many operate more as cultural and community centers than as businesses, with late hours and a medium-sized town's worth of on-site readings, tastings and concerts out of any weather that may be annoying you. Check out their posters and bulletin boards for options farther afield. And ask the staff: Bookstore cafes usually have a nicotine-tinged finger or two on a city's pulse.

Local patrons, too, tend to be welcoming and helpful even in the world's most frenzied metropolises. A bookstore cafe, after all, is the last place you'd go in a hurry.

Although bookstore cafes unlock the cultural life of the surrounding area, some are so special that they are destinations in their own right. In this sense, the world's finest bookstore cafe may well be the Montague Bookmill, housed in a marvelous 19th century structure above the Sawmill River in Montague, Mass.

The Bookmill is owned by screenwriter Susan Shilliday ("thirtysomething," "A Wrinkle in Time," "Legends of the Fall"), who relocated to western Massachusetts after three decades in Los Angeles. Once a regular at Santa Monica's 18th Street Coffee House and the now-shuttered Dutton's Brentwood Bookstore, Shilliday's daughter introduced her to the "shared secret" of the Bookmill (slogan: "Books you don't need in a place you can't find"). She found it to be the ideal place to write, read, socialize and caffeinate, and long dreamed that one day she'd see a "For Sale" sign outside. In 2007, she did.

The Bookmill offers used books as well as the usual poetry readings, happy staff and hummus plates. And the area's unexpectedly vibrant music scene fills it with concerts and its windows with posters. Yet the life of the Bookmill — as much as the coffee, the books and the music — is the Sawmill River, visible at every turn. In spring it surges with snowmelt, and in summer the sight and sound of it cool the hottest afternoons. By October, the famous New England foliage blows over the mill and into the rushing waters.

But the Bookmill is most magical in the heart of winter. If snowflakes aren't tumbling into the half-frozen rapids, pale sunlight filters through the bare trees and old windows onto the mill's charactered wood surfaces. The mill has many corners — grab a hot chocolate and find one for yourself. Read, chat or simply listen to the voices in the cafe, the river running under the ice outside and the pages turning all around you.

The Montague Bookmill and Lady Killigrew Cafe, 440 Greenfield Road, Montague, Mass.; (413) 367-9206,, (413) 367-9666,

The Trident Booksellers & Cafe on Newbury Street in Boston — the Puritans' snow-dusted answer to Rodeo Drive — isn't the most obvious venue for an establishment aiming to exemplify a "Buddhist notion of right livelihood." But owner Bernard Flynn wanted to offer customers "the opportunity to connect to others or to be alone … in a space that's open and warmhearted."

His longstanding success, as chain bookstores and cafes rise and fall around him, owes much to the eclectic mix of books that Flynn has been handcrafting for 34 years. His broad-mindedness carries over to the cafe menu, which includes the Truck Stop Special (one pancake, home fries, sausage, two eggs and toast) and Tibetan vegetarian dumplings, and an award-winning newsstand that encompasses reading materials as diverse as National Review and Reiki News.

Trident Booksellers & Cafe, 338 Newbury St., Boston; (617) 267-8688,

Establishments along Trident's lines are a natural fit for Boston, Washington, D.C., and Seattle. But in rural America too, travelers are discovering bookstore cafes and their unexpectedly vibrant cultural resources. Explorers on the back roads of eastern Arizona, for example, may find themselves in the town of Payson, about 80 miles northeast of Phoenix. A wrong turn or two after the Wal-Mart will bring them to East West Exchange, a charming and friendly establishment that's an ideal place to pause on a road trip.

The country element — both on the CD player and on live nights (look no further for Willie Nelson tributes) — is no surprise. But add yoga classes (good for car-contorted roadtrippers), poetry readings and Native American flute concerts, and East West Exchange has the contented feel of a place that brings people together.

Like most independent bookstore cafe proprietors, East West owners Chip and Lisa Semrau say they're not "doing this to get rich. The biggest thing we're providing is community." Break your journey with an Italian soda, a chat with locals and ideas for exploring nearby Tonto Natural Bridge State Park and the Mogollon Rim.

East West Exchange, 100 N. Tonto St., Suite 102, Payson, Ariz.; (928) 468-2435,

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