Deep in the Woods: Henry Miller Library Turns 30

The legendary Big Sur venue hosts arena acts in a backyard setting

  • by Gil Kaufman
  • Published: August 19, 2011

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Outside the Henry Miller Library, Big Sur, Calif. (Photo by Terry Way)

The Henry Miller Library was green long before being green was cool. Located along the coast of beautiful Big Sur on the Central Coast of California, the cozy 300-person venue has developed a reputation for hosting arena-level bands and stripping down their massive sets into intimate, small productions with a carbon footprint near zero.

 “I’m convinced Arcade Fire [played a show in 2010] entirely for the experience. They probably lost money doing it because of production costs,” said the Library’s Executive Director Magnus Toren. The payoff? “The experience playing in one of the most beautiful venues on earth,” Toren said.

 Arcade Fire booked the show on the same tour that included two sellout shows at Madison Square Garden in New York and ended with the band winning the Grammy for Album of the Year.

 And this year, to celebrate its 30th anniversary, the Library has booked a classic collection of underplays including avant-classical legend Philip Glass and rock bands Explosions in the Sky — who are booked to play Lollapalooza this year and tour with the Foo Fighters — and Fleet Foxes, who are playing a dozen major festivals this summer and touring with The Walkmen. On July 27, the Library booked its biggest show to date — a sellout concert by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

 The Library was born in the 1960s when painter Emil White built a house in the heart of Big Sur. He converted it into the Henry Miller Memorial Library in 1981 in honor of his longtime friend, novelist Henry Miller, who was the author of “Tropic of Cancer”.

 When White died in 1989, he bequeathed the Library to the Big Sur Land Trust and it became a 501(c)3 organization a decade later, with a mission to serve as a retreat and cultural center.

The small wooden shack is not only packed with Miller’s rare and in-print books and a selection of classics, it also faces a front lawn that holds 300 seats. The bookstore-cum-nonlending library was transformed into a venue in 1993 when Toren came on board. 

“I met Emil (White) in the 1980s and I always thought this was such a unique jewel adjacent to the highway,” he said. “Early on I thought there was a beautifully natural amphitheater in front of this humble cabin and it developed from there with singer/songwriters and poetry readings. Big Sur, with its romance and unbelievable natural grandeur, attracts people with artistic bent.”

That included punk godmother Patti Smith, a literary junkie, who came out for a 2004 benefit concert for the Library in nearby Carmel at the Sunset Center, setting the ball rolling for future big-ticket bookings.

Shortly after, Toren hooked up with San Francisco-based promoter Britt Govea, who works under the name (((folkYEAH!))) Presents, who helped bring a string of impressive acts into the space, including Henry Rollins, Band of Horses, the Beach Boys’ Al Jardine, Marianne Faithful, Cat Power, Neil & Pegi Young and Arcade Fire.

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The XX perform at the Library (photo by Terry Way)

Arcade Fire was not an overnight booking, but one that Govea spent nearly four years working on. Govea said he’d developed a relationship with Arcade Fire’s booking agent at Chicago’s Billions Corporation and after years of booking the organization’s bands for intimate Bay Area shows, he finally landed the big fish.

“These days I don’t have to do much selling to get artists to the Library because I did so much in the first four years,” said Govea, who presents 40-60 shows a year in California under the FolkYeah banner. 

“Before we had brand recognition, it was about getting artists to come to Big Sur and take a day off afterwards before they go to L.A. and to make this a national whistle stop,” he said, noting that the artists who’ve played the Library have been seduced by its natural charms and the area’s beauty. “They can see how much work goes into it. There’s nothing here, so everything you see came from somewhere else and they realized when they get here how hard we’ve worked to set it up.”

At this point, Govea said 75 percent of the business he brings in is by word-of-mouth from the artistic community. The booking season lasts from May until the end of October and Govea typically curates an eight-12 show series, with the Library picking up the production and lodging costs and the artists generally taking a smaller fee than they’re used to.

For example, he brought the now very hot Fleet Foxes, who have become good friends, to the 400-capacity Spirit Garden in 2008. On their current tour, they are playing a $35-a –ticket show at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre (capacity 8,500) two nights before their Library gig, which carries a $45 ticket price. “Do the math and they’re definitely playing for a reduced fee,” he said, declining to give the exact figure. “Bands like Fleet Foxes and Arcade Fire are definitely not doing it to make money … but they see it as a mini-vacation and a way to get out of the rat race.”

Govea brings in his own lighting, sound and production crew — while bands like Arcade Fire set up with their own scaled-down production — and he said, even with the nonprofit nature of the venue, he pays all the technicians a wage comparable to what they’d make at a San Francisco gig. He also brings in a professional Bay Area security team, though that, too, is scaled down because, as he said, “Big Sur and the redwoods are a humbling place and people are on their best behavior. Nature will correct you if you act like an idiot.”

The allure of Miller has brought in acts such as Rollins and Smith, but it’s the natural beauty of the lush Big Sur forest canopy and the promise of an intimate show that has kept them coming. Toren runs the Library on a budget of around $500,000 a year and he said all proceeds from the concerts and events go directly back into the building.

“The point is not to make money, but to share this place and the coast through the artists and music,” said Toren. So, while more than 10,000 people are vying for tickets to the Fleet Foxes show, only 300 will get in. The venue is far enough away from a major metropolitan area (120 miles south of San Francisco), that very few people make the trek to the shows without tickets, and gatecrashing is not really a problem.

Even with the remoteness of the venue, Govea said it’s not the same 300 locals showing up for each show. While he’s seen some familiar faces over the past seven years, the diversity of his bookings keeps the mix fresh. He also assures that by tapping his email list of 15,000 music lovers, he’s able to book other venues, like the funky Pappy & Harriets inside Pioneertown at Joshua Tree, Calif., or the Brookdale Lodge near Santa Cruz, Calif.

This year’s roster of shows includes the Woodsist Festival, a talk by famed director John Waters, as well as gigs by Coachella favorites MGMT, two Glass performances and up-and-coming buzz acts as Gang Gang Dance, Twin Shadow and Little Dragon.

In order to limit the local impact, Toren said he encourages attendees to carpool and, so far, the local community has embraced the series, appreciating the influx of cultural events and pitching in when they can. The restaurant next door to the venue installed a fire protection device at no cost, and another eatery has donated significantly to the Library. Toren has also made sure to offer the space for local events such as memorial services and community gatherings in addition to the International Big Sur Short Film Screening Series, children’s art shows, the Big Sur Fashion Show and book and poetry readings.

Asked to pinpoint when the shows became less of a hard sell, Govea pointed to the June 2007 solo debut from Pegi Young, wife of rock legend Neil Young. “It was her absolute first show and he [Neil] showed up to watch, and watching him watch her was amazing,” he said. “Then he played three songs with her for the encore, and after that I looked over at Magnus with a wink and a nod and thought, ‘what’s not possible at this point? Neil Young is on stage in the redwoods in front of 300 people. Nothing seems inappropriate at this point.’”

Interviewed for this story: Magnus Toren, (831) 667-2574; Britt Govea, (831) 224-2911

  • by Gil Kaufman
  • Published: August 19, 2011