Remarkable Bookstores: Henry Miller Library

alex atkins bookshelf booksOne of the most scenic highways in America is California State Route 1 (designated as Coast Highway, Cabrillo Highway, or Pacific Coast Highway) that hugs the coastline for most of its 656 miles from Leggett (home of the Chandelier Tree, better known as the Drive-through Tree, located about 170 miles north of San Francisco) in the north to Dana Point (about 60 miles south of Los Angeles) in the south. Although its views of the Pacific Ocean are breathtaking, it’s a harrowing drive filled with a serpentine roadway that dips and rises, bordered by sheer jagged cliffs that disappear into the Pacific Ocean. But once you pass Carmel-by-the-Sea (about 75 miles south of San Jose), you are treated to one of the most beautiful and most photographed bridges in the world: the Bixby Bridge, a reinforced concrete open-spandrel arch bridge, that crosses over Big Sur Creek, spilling into the ocean. But the real treat for bibliophiles is just 16 miles to the south of that iconic bridge — but you have to pay attention because it is easy to miss. As you drive down Cabrillo Highway, passing Mule Canyon Road on your right, less than half a mile on your left you will see a sign for one of the most remote but remarkable small bookstores in the country. The wooden sign that reads “Henry Miller Memorial Library Books Music Art” leads you to an enchanting bookstore surrounded by beautiful, majestic redwood trees, with views of the shoreline of Big Sur.

By now you are asking, “You mean Henry Miller, the famous author of the banned book Tropic of Cancer and friend of Anasis Nin, Otto Rank, Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos?” Yes, that Henry Miller. After his famous travels in Europe, and time spent in New York, Miller moved to California in 1942, and settled in Big Sur in 1944. By then, he was famous for his Tropic of Cancer trilogy that was banned in the U.S. on the grounds of obscenity (the books had to be smuggled into America). He began writing The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945) there, and later Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch (1957). In the early 1960s, Emil White, a friend, confidant, and painter, built a small log cabin house for Miller in the forest. Miller once said of White: “One of the few friends who has never failed me.” Miller lived in the house for three years, and moved to Los Angeles in 1963. He died there in 1980 at the age of 88. A year later, White founded the Henry Miller Memorial Library, a nonprofit to house a collection of his works (the library houses the second largest collection of his work, manuscripts, and letters in the world; UCLA has the largest collection), promote his legacy and the arts, and sell books and artwork. The mission statement reads: “The Henry Miller Library is a public benefit, non-profit 501 (c) 3 organization championing the literary, artistic and cultural contributions of the late writer, artist, and Big Sur resident Henry Miller. The Library also serves as a cultural resource center, functioning as a public gallery/performance/workshop space for artists, writers, musicians and students. In addition, the Library supports education in the arts and the local environment. Finally, the Library serves as a social center for the community.” During the summer, the Library hosts lectures, musical performances, book signings, and film festivals. White was the director of the nonprofit until his death in 1989; he bequeathed the library to the Big Sur Land Trust. Interestingly, Miller disapproved of memorials; he once remarked: “Memorials defeated the purpose of a man’s life. Only by living your own life to the full can you honor the memory of someone.”

When you walk up the short ramp to the Henry Miller Library the first thing you notice is an expansive deck, adjacent to the rustic building. In the center of the deck is a beautiful tree; hanging from the branches of the trees are plastic bags that contain curated books. Along the exterior walls are several tables that are curated by theme: nature, Big Sur, spirituality, classic fiction, modern fiction, children’s fiction, the Beats, and of course: Anais Nin and Henry Miller. The exterior walls are also lined with bags of books. You will find obligatory signs about reading, including “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” (Ray Bradbury) and “A book lying on a shelf is wasted ammunition. Like money, books must be kept in constant circulation. Lend and borrow to the maximum — of both books and money!” (Henry Miller). Once inside you step inside the cabin, a visitor will find small wooden tables with neat stacks of books, walls with narrow bookcases, artwork, and more books hanging in plastic bags. The best part of buying a book here is that they will stamp emboss it with the Henry Miller Library logo that features a rendering of a crab (similar to the one that appeared on the first edition of Tropic of Cancer; in that illustration, by artist Maurice Kahane, the crab is gripping the body of a limp male body) holding a copy of Tropic of Cancer standing over a writer’s desk. Incidentally, a first edition of Tropic of Cancer published by Obelisk Press in September 1934 (only 1,000 copies were printed) and featuring a preface by Anais Nin (now known to be largely written by Miller), is worth over $6,600. Since it was banned for obscenity the cover features the line: “Not to be imported into Great Britain of U.S.A.” The first American edition, published by Grove Press of New York in 1961 is worth over $2,500. The typescript of the book was purchased by Yale University in 1986 for $165,000.

Of course, if you don’t have the nerve to navigate the long and winding road of the Coast Highway to get to the Henry Miller Library, you can also hop on the internet and order directly from their website. You will also find a fascinating timeline of Miller’s fascinating life. And yes, you can buy Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, raw and uncensored, considered to be a remarkable novel by George Orwell; he wrote: “I earnestly counsel anyone who has not done so to read at least Tropic of Cancer. With a little ingenuity, or by paying a little over the published price, you can get hold of it, and even if parts of it disgust you, it will stick in your memory… Here in my opinion is the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past. Even if that is objected to as an overstatement, it will probably be admitted that Miller is a writer out of the ordinary, worth more than a single glance.” [From the essay, “Inside the Whale” published in 1940.]

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