The Bodhi Tree |


In the 1960s, Los Angeles was a mecca for alternative religions and New Age thought. Spiritual teachers like Ram Dass and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (the Beatles guru) drew large crowds while Hindu guru Paramahansa Yogananda compared LA to Benares, India’s holiest city. Riding this spiritual wave, a little New Age bookstore in West Hollywood called Bodhi Tree.

The Bodhi tree has stored titles on religion, spirituality, philosophy, and metaphysics. Shirley MacLaine credited the Bodhi tree in her 1983 biography Out on a limb for inspiring a midlife spiritual quest. She wrote: “Making that simple, lazy afternoon decision to visit an unusual bookstore in West Hollywood was one of the most important decisions of my life.

Stan Madson and Phil Thompson were aerospace engineers for Northrup Grumman helping to build missiles and bombs for the Vietnam War. A fellow engineer, Bernie Glassman, became a Zen Roshi and discussed Buddhism at work. Madson and Thompson began to meditate and became interested in Eastern religion. In conflict over their role in the military-industrial complex, they quit their jobs, pooled their savings, and built a bookstore that would become an “American Library of Alexandria.”

Madson and Thompson rented a two-bedroom, 1,400-square-foot home on Melrose Ave. among antique stores and suburban homes. They purchased 2,000 books on the wisdom traditions of the world and named the store after the tree under which the Buddha sat in meditation until he attained enlightenment. On July 10, 1970 at 2 p.m., a time chosen by an astrologer, the Bodhi Tree Bookstore opened its doors. It has become a magnet for spiritual seekers and teachers around Los Angeles.

Customers bought books from authors like Carlos Castaneda, Alan Watts and Richard Bach. The store had sections on astrology, Buddhism, herbal remedies, meditation, vegetarianism, and yoga. They sold candles, crystals, incense, and tarot cards. Visitors drank free herbal tea while New Age music played. People were encouraged to linger for hours like in a library.

The first famous clients included Linda Ronstadt and Governor Jerry Brown, who became a student of Buddhism. Larry Geller, hairdresser for Elvis Presley, bought Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet for Elvis. Deepak Chopra claimed to have brought Michael Jackson to the store in disguise. Prince bought books on Egyptology while David Bowie spent over $ 1000 on amethyst and quartz crystals.

In 1987, I worked on the Bodhi tree. Duties included storage, cleaning, customer service and management of ledger transactions. I loved helping clients find an obscure spiritual book or presenting them with classic literary works with spiritual themes like that of W. Somerset Maugham. Razor blade Where Siddhartha by Herman Hesse.

Every day during lunch I picked up a book from a different section and read under a real Bodhi tree in the backyard. I have read mystical books by Gurdjieff. I learned the hierarchy of angels from William Blake and Emanuel Swedenborg. I studied Thich Nhat Hanh’s meditation books and Carl Jung’s psychology books. My favorite works were Rumi’s poetry and Krishnamurti’s wisdom lectures.

During my tenure at Bodhi Tree, New Age literature became a cultural phenomenon. Popular books included The Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Milman, You can heal your life by Louise Hay, The road less traveled by Mr. Scott Peck and MacLaine’s Out on a limb. The “MacLaine Boom” increased Bodhi Tree sales from 300 to nearly 2000 pounds per day. The store added an annex for used books and an event space dedicated to speakers such as Deepak Chopra and Marianne Williamson.

Madson and Thompson were permissive managers. There was no dress code or sales model required. Their only employee rule was punctuality. They installed a security system near the front door to prevent book theft, but never activated it. Thompson believed that if someone stole a book, maybe they were supposed to have it.

The Bodhi tree has attracted Indian Sikhs, aspiring gurus and aspiring life coaches. The store was a magnet for lost souls. You might find a homeless person reading Napoleon Hill’s You have to think to get rich. I remember a client advising people on astral projection and how to navigate an out-of-body experience. I also remember a UFO expert who spoke at length about the alien abductions and the resulting anal probes.

The staff at Bodhi Tree were as fascinating as the customers. The employees included artists, actors, musicians and yoga instructors. The workers gave themselves Reiki treatments during the breaks. An employee spoke Sanskrit. Another translated Aramaic texts. One guy created his own pictorial language inspired by the inherent energy found in all objects.

The Bodhi Tree has hosted lectures from renowned authors and spiritual teachers. There were lectures on meditation and numerology and the incorporation of spirituality into business practices. I remember an obnoxious clairvoyant who claimed to be able to communicate with the dead. I told him: “Your dialogue with the living needs work.

In the mid-1890s, the Bodhi tree reached its peak. The store stocked 35,000 titles, the employee roster reached 99, and annual sales were $ 5 million. New Age books appeared on The New York Times bestseller list and chain stores like Crown and Barnes and Noble have started selling Spiritual titles. Amazon has finally taken its toll.

In the early 2000s, Bodhi Tree sales were declining by 15% per year. On January 2, 2012 at 5:30 p.m., a time chosen by an astrologer, the Bodhi Tree bookstore closed its doors. The Los Angeles spiritual community was devastated. Customers shared stories about the Bodhi tree providing refuge to help them overcome negative lifestyles. Candlelight vigils were held on Melrose Ave. The regulars hugged the employees and drank a final free cup of herbal tea.

The Bodhi tree holds a special place in my own heart. It was there that I met the woman who became my wife and where we adopted our cat who spent 22 beautiful years with us. Thompson and Madson were in their seventies. They knew it was time to move on. “We were able to bring something meaningful to the world,” said Thompson. “It’s a place that has helped people transform,” Madson added.

The Bodhi tree has come to illustrate a truth inherent in Buddhist teaching. Even bookstores are ephemeral.


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