The stretch of California coast known as Big Sur often seems like a place lifted out of a dream. Steep hillsides fall dramatically into a churning sea, and when the fog lies thick between the redwoods, which is often, it can feel like the road has not yet decided where it wants to take you but is making up its mind as you drive.
If you’re lucky, the road will take you to the dream-within-a-dream that is the Henry Miller Memorial Library, a bookstore and performance venue established here in 1981 by the writer’s friend Emil White just after Miller’s death. Step through the tall wooden gate and books are the first things that greet you—rather than sitting quietly on shelves, these books are wrapped in plastic and scattered along the walk that leads to the bookstore. They’re set at the bases of redwood trees or propped against the dozen or so art pieces that decorate the grounds. They line the outer walls of the small wooden building and hang from the eaves. Although this unique placement was the library’s reaction to COVID (rather than shut down, the shop simply moved the stock outside), there’s a certain brazen attitude about the books that seems appropriate, as if they embody the spirit of one of the most audacious writers of the 20th century.
This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
Miller came to Big Sur in 1944 and for almost 20 years lived a few miles down the coast from where the bookstore now resides. With its idyllic surroundings, its exuberant decor, and a culture that encourages visitors to pick up the house guitar or sit down at the piano, the store imparts a sense of grounded excitement. Inside, more books hang from the ceiling, and the place is covered in Miller memorabilia, including movie posters and prints of his paintings; there are also odds and ends like a letter complaining about a photo of the nude backside of White’s girlfriend—which is posted beside the offending derrière.
The bottom has good company: Miller is best known for a series of candidly sexual autobiographical novels (including Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn) written in the 1930s but banned in the United States until 1961. His papers are housed at UCLA and at Yale University, but a back room of the bookstore holds some rare first editions and a small collection of original letters, manuscripts, and paintings that fans have contributed over the years. The small, focused selection of books for sale is curated by Magnus Torens, a former yacht skipper who since 1993 has been the executive director of the nonprofit that runs the library, a de facto cultural center for Big Sur.
Jake Padorr, one of three employees, hosts an open mic night for local talent on the library’s outdoor stage, usually on the first Thursday of the month. And bigger acts—such as Patti Smith and Arcade Fire—play small (but pricey) shows there throughout the year.
If the Miller-esque appetite for art and for life is still rare, the bookstore does seem to attract a particular kind of visitor. “People have to go through a couple of filters to get here,” Padorr says. “They have to want to get away from phones and technology. Then they have to venture out into this beautiful preserve of nature. Finally, they have to take a leap of faith to walk through this tall fence.”
When they do, the spirit of Henry Miller is here to catch them with open arms.•
Henry Miller Memorial Library
48603 Hwy. 1, Big Sur, henrymiller.org
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