No downloads. One word. Lowercase.
Javier is on day thirty of his road trip from Mexico to Vancouver. He’s on his bike, and he’s carrying a copy of Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch by Henry Miller. An inscription reads …purchased this in 1993 at Nepenthe, stop by Henry Miller Memorial Library when you pass through Big Sur. Javier says it’s a heavy book to carry, but he’ll never part with it now.
The impact Big Sur had upon Henry Miller when he arrived here in the 1944 is perpetual. I imagine Javier showing up here one day as an old man, reliving his 20’s.
“Every time I come here, it’s so relaxing. Just like the 60's”. The man in sensible walking shoes chats up Sarah, the young intern, about Santa Cruz and music she has never heard. Under his breath, he invokes, "John Sebastian, Country Joe McDonald and Buffy Saint Marie”. He looks out across the lawn, as if he sees them there.
Albums with these names are stacked in the “Staff Picks” bin. All of the vinyl is for sale. Most of it costs a buck, and sits in plastic milk crates. At his tightly curated independent book store, library, living memorial, there’s also a used book section that works on an honor system. You can drop off a book off and take one with you.
Some people drop in but never leave, I’m told. Sarah was supposed to intern here for two weeks, but she’ll stay longer. Mike, one of three full time staffers says that every year we get “one” that never leaves. He’s talking about the pedigreed interns and others who come each summer to help out. Some are writers, researchers, librarians, and then there’s me.
Keely, a staff archivist, grew up in a small East Coast town, and celebrated her 20th birthday at the library during an internship. Ten years later, a Big Sur local, I wonder how the presence of so many Miller admirers have influenced her life. And how she has shaped ours.
Magnus, the one everyone has heard about, can’t help but lead. His charisma lures everyone in, but it’s his heart that makes us stay longer than we expected. One morning at the library in August, while I was volunteering for two weeks, a man with the opposite appeal, asked Magnus to pick out a book for him. So Magnus did, reluctantly, and while handing him the book, he said, “You’re a hard sell, but I’ve got one for you.”
The man walked out, book in hand, looking satisfied, and Magnus yells behind him, “You’re going to email me in a month and tell me it’s the best book you ever read.” None of us are convinced.
All who arrive at the Library are on a pilgrimage it seems, heading north or south, but rarely here. Visitors wander about in awe or uncertainty. Some tell stories, prompting others to chime in. This is a living archive. Each person who enters breathes life into it, and takes a whiff of it home. It’s not just about Henry Miller’s journey now.
A rejection letter from Random House is stapled to the wall with a note scribbled by Miller.
File or throw away. A luke warm prick. Henry.
Paintings and articles about the legend are tucked into every corner. Everyone leaves knowing more about the author, and his friend Emil White an equal player in Henry’s illustrious life. The library, like the highway you take to arrive, meanders intentionally in a focused harrowing way. A river runs through it, literally. From the back deck, you see the river path, running through redwoods, and beneath the library. It derives it energy from the parallel lives of rivers, trees and unknown travelers, past and present.
Even the fallen trees are engrained in the library’s memory. In December 2012, one of the largest and oldest trees crashed to the earth. Vertical slabs lying in state stand guard, while another gets primed and worked over by Magnus. He will manage to perfect a redwood, and people will travel from all over the world to see this piece of ancient wood he has turned into a community table for guests of the library.
Animated by a small staff with bold ideas, a dead man manages to engage thousands each year into music, dance, conversations and mindfulness about nature, and their human existence. Every day we hear the same question: I’ve never read any Henry Miller. What would you suggest for a first timer? Mike helps me the answer the question: Are you interested in the renegade, expatriate Miller in Paris? Or the wiser, older, metaphysical Henry of Big Sur?
I know my answer. It’s why I am here.
Behind the counter, I am cast in sun and currency.
A curtain of foreign money serves as a smokescreen.
[There’s a lot more than money being exchanged here]
A small cash box, a receipt booklet, and a calculator are the only tools we need.
Selling books is a small part of the job, compared to the rest.
A Montana boy employs each guitar that hangs about the library. A cast off from a Wes Anderson film, he’s blonde and hunting. He gives me a small black stone called an Apache’s tear. He drinks tea without putting a donation in the jar, because he knows I am returning a favor. He could be River Phoenix. Or a river. Or the driftwood on Pfeifer Beach with the crooked smile just like my sweet Aunt Pat.
A political reporter with a made-up sounding name was a clerk at the stock exchange in New York in the 60’s. He was so inspired by Miller that when he quit his job he asked himself, how would Henry Miller do it? “So I went to Central Park, dug a hole, threw in the ring of office keys I was responsible for, buried it then pissed on it.“
She is fair, freckled, tall, and from Boston. “I wanted my kids to see the redwoods. If something is alive after 1000 years, there must be something to it,” she says. We linger on the sunny deck of the library, talking about the lure, and the lore of Big Sur. From the ping-pong table, her 17 year-old son declares he’s going to move here someday. He can be a volunteer at the library, I tell her. She doesn’t think he’s ready, but it’s exactly what he needs. We both arrive at this conclusion, without a word spoken. When she learns her husband is already waiting in the car, we acknowledge our connection - we could talk all day, she says, and I agree.
On the flip side of neighborly conversations are those who walk in, and ask, before they even look around – Do you have WiFi? Sarah says a little piece of her dies every time that happens. I turn it to good, and every time I speak the password, I free the person of unwanted burdens. All day long, we exchange energies without bleeding into each other or taking on each other’s history. No downloads.
Pilgrims every one of them. Not all who enter the library are famous, until they leave of course. Then they wonder about their own legacy. Some of them even take the next step, quit the job, choose love, or maybe they just stop their minds for a moment to take in the sky, our most accessible link to nature, no matter where we live.
I am at ease taking care of these seeming strangers, and receiving the warmth they afford me. Some quiet ones prefer to whisper, just to get closer, is what I imagine.
Posters from legendary concerts, Emil’s paintings, and photos of Henry plaster the log cabin. His name invoked so often, I wonder how he rests. Trunks of old LPs reside under the “Henry Miller” table that runs along the meridian of the library. All of his books can be found on this table. Surrounding shelves house his favorite authors, local writers, and the best popular fiction and non. He is the hub from which everything flows and gives shape to the independent bookstore in the middle of the woods. I imagine the spine of Henry Miller riddled with music, sentient beings, and others who walk an invisible path.
Pages and pages of Henry Miller and 100 of his favorite novels and books constantly move into the general population – all because of this little memorial, the source of so much fiction and invention.
And I am reminded with each passing spirit that none of these are for me to hang on to. Instead, I see them on their way. I give directions to landmarks to the North and to the South.
Theo would agree. This is the place where nothing happens.
Henry Valentine Miller (December 26, 1891 – June 7, 1980) was an American writer. He was known for breaking with existing literary forms, developing a new sort of semi-autobiographical novel that blended character study, social criticism, philosophical reflection, surrealist free association and mysticism, always distinctly about and expressive of the real-life Henry Miller and yet also fictional. His most characteristic works of this kind are Tropic of Cancer (1934), Black Spring (1936), Tropic of Capricorn (1939) and The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy (1949-59), all of which were banned in the United States until 1964. He also wrote travel memoirs and literary criticism, and painted watercolors.