Big Sur

The Phoenix at Nepenthe, Big Sur (48510 Highway One, CA)

Though technically not a bookshop in its own right, an interesting books section has been created at the The Phoenix store which is attached to the (once) bohemian restaurant Nepenthe. The majority of books on offer are either: by locals, both past and present (e.g. Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch by Miller, Plum Gorgeous and My Nepenthe by Romney Steele, granddaughter of the original owners and many other titles by John Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers, and Robert Louis Stevenson); on local subject matter (e.g. Big Sur Women, Esalen, Big Sur Inn – The Deetjen’s Legacy) or on topics which are of local interest or inspired by the ‘magic’ of the place itself (e.g. The Esalen Cookbook). The view at the back of the shop is worth a visit in itself – looking out over the mountains, partially clad in sea mist, it is easy to see why Big Sur has inspired so many people.

The Henry Miller Memorial Library (Highway 1, Big Sur, CA 93920, a quarter of a mile south from Nepenthe)The HMML is not actually a library at all but a bookshop and quiet oasis which takes you a million miles away from Highway One just outside. This is my favourite bookshop of the trip so far, not least because it is hidden in an old shack (actually Miller’s friend Emil White’s old home) set in a glade among Redwood trees. On the porch, people are reading and drinking tea and coffee (which is paid for by whatever donation you choose to give) or looking at the ride board, which lists people wanting or offering to carpool up and down the coast. The shady garden space is grass covered and lit by lanterns and candles. A big screen was set up while we there, ready for a musical concert and movie night in the evening (the library/bookshop serves as a cultural resource centre for artists, writers and musicians who put on a whole host of events throughout the year).

The bookshop itself is charming – fairy lights and books are suspended from the ceiling; poetry and philosophy titles are strewn across a piano; old festival and event posters and records (all for sale) hang from the walls and old typewriters and musical instruments, which I like to think are not just decorative, are dotted around various alcoves. The people manning the shop were extremely nice (not pretentious in the slightest) and were happy to talk – someone who had been sleeping in their car along the route wasbeing given advice on the best camp-sites to sneak into to get a free shower while I was in there. Even if you don’t buy anything, you are still encouraged to sit down or lie on the grass and talk to other people over a cup of tea, which is how I think all bookshops should be in an ideal world. If you’re a Miller fan, the place is full of paintings, newspaper excerpts, literary posters and writings which are blu-tacked or pinned to the wall in an impermanent way. Miller himself was not a fan of memorials, famously having said that they ‘defeated the purpose of a man’s life’, so perhaps this temporality is in fact a little nod to him. Lucky then that the Henry Miller Library is neither library nor memorial, but one of the best bookshops and cultural spaces on the west coast.


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