Big Sur's Henry Miller Library looks at branching out

Aug 25, 2017

The Henry Miller Library is an iconic Big Sur destination. But a bridge failure and landslides left it stranded without tourists to support it. So the library moved north and set up temporary shop in Carmel. Now it’s executive director is finding reason to make that temporary location permanent. 

The Henry Miller Library sits among towering redwoods along Highway 1 in Big Sur. It’s small rustic looking house has a bookshop. There you can grab a cup of tea and drop money in the donation jar before you sit out on the deck. Sometimes chairs fill the lawn for a reading or musical performance.

The motto at the Henry Miller Library has long been: “the place where nothing happens.”

Though that’s never really been true. That is until this winter when it became isolated by the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge failure to the north and the Mud Creek landslide to the south. That left the library on an island.

“So I’m either going to just sit around and prune my pear trees and have the library close. Or we’ll find another place to open up temporary, so that’s what happened,” says Library Executive Director Mangus Toren.

What happened was the birth of the Henry Miller LAB, short for Library At the Barnyard. This second location opened in May. It sits between restaurants and boutiques at the Barnyard shopping center in Carmel. Books hang from the high ceiling, others for sale fill tables and art covers the wall along with pieces from the archive of author Henry Miller’s life.

“These are original letters from Henry in the '20s and early '30s following his early day as a writer finding his voice,” says Toren, pointing to a collection on the wall.

The Henry Miller Library has found its voice here. Pulling off events that have a long tradition of happening in Big Sur like that annual Big Sur Fashion Show and the Big Sur International Short Film Screening Series.

“It’s kind of remarkable actually that this space is so good for us in that it’s large. It’s big enough for gatherings. Over 100 people can be in there comfortably for reading or a music thing or movie or something,” says Toren.

The success here combined with the newfound quiet and isolation of the Library’s Big Sur home has Toren thinking about what has come of the scenic and wild coast.

“I am personally, along with many others, very, very concerned about the commercialization of the coast. People are renting out their homes for big weddings and this is becoming an actual business. It becomes more and more of a Disneyland. It’s a dangerous slippery slope,” says Toren. 

In recent years he’s tried to reduce the ways the library has contributed to that. It no longer hosts large and loud concerts like The Red Hot Chili Peppers in 2011. And when it does do big events, like the Philip Glass Days and Nights Festival, it shuttles in guests to reduce traffic and parking headaches.

“The other big problem, in my opinion, is it is kind of a contradiction for us, at least for me personally to be complaining about the commercialization of the coast. For reasons of preserving the coast for future generations as an incredibly natural, beautiful, wild destination,” says Toren.

The solution he sees is keeping both locations. The Henry Miller LAB in Carmel for the events and even adding things like after school programs or poetry workshops. That would allow the now re-opened Henry Miller Library in Big Sur to truly become the place where nothing happens.