What happens when a shop peddling matters of the infinite brushes up against its own mortality? After 41 years of selling books on reincarnation, past lives, and eternal life in the Pleiades, Bodhi Tree Bookstore in West Hollywood will close in October unless an eleventh-hour rescue occurs, with someone swooping in to buy the business and move it to a new location. The Bodhi Tree created a template for New Age browsing when it opened in 1970. By the ’80s, stores like it would pop up all over the country. The Bodhi Tree, more successful, more well known, outpaced them all. To linger in its stacks today beneath the prayer flags and dangling pyramids is to take a refresher course on a wave of spiritualism that rolled across the Left Coast. Alchemy, channeling, astral projection, TM, the I Ching, angels, auras, miracles, UFOs, crop circles, runes, Kabbalah, tantra, mantra, tarot, Wicca, and Tibet: It’s a caboodle of sunshiny spirituality as endemic to L.A. as palm trees and celebrity scandal. Without a church or singular text, the New Age—in all its heterogeneous forms—lacked a center, as did its sponsor town. If one did exist, it was the Bodhi Tree.
A half century ago Southern California claimed more swamis, mediums, and yogis than any other city west of the Hudson. The antiguru Krishnamurti was in Ojai refining meditation technique, and on Mount Washington, Sri Daya Mata (formerly Rachel Faye Wright of Salt Lake City) was busy expanding the Self-Realization Fellowship. Pasadena had its Theosophical Society, created in part by a self-proclaimed psychic and alleged con artist named Helena Blavatsky, and out in Trabuco Canyon, Swami Prabhavananda—a spiritual guide to Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley—ran a monastery for the Vendanta Society. If it smelled of incense, masala, or reincarnated souls, it had an address near L.A.
Yet it was easier to run into Krishnamurti than to run across his writings. Phil Thompson and Stan Madson once spent several weekends with the master in the 1960s, asking questions and watching to see if the universe moved him to answer, but after a long search for Krishnamurti’s works, Thompson says, “I ended up at the Free Press Bookstore rummaging through a bottom shelf, eventually finding something all beat up.” Frustrated, Thompson and Madson would go on to open the Bodhi Tree, but the inspiration that led them there came from an unlikely source.
The Douglas Aircraft lunchroom in Santa Monica was a sober hall during the 1960s. The engineers who ate there were mathematically inclined and buttoned down. They were squares. One table, however, was different. Around it sat a group of men who met regularly to discuss the latest dispatch from the Age of Aquarius—something by the Zen philosopher Alan Watts, perhaps, or anthropologist Carlos Castaneda or Krishnamurti. It was not unusual to hear talk of meditation or a choice to go macrobiotic. In a room of squares, this bunch didn’t fit. They were the nerds of the nerds.
Their roster shifted over time, but you could usually find Bernie Glassman, a charismatic math genius who as a teenager in Brighton Beach had informed his mother he would one day be a Zen monk. Nearby was Thompson, an aerospace engineer from Cincinnati who had once tried to build his own submarine. Thompson and Glassman were poker buddies, midnight habitués of Vegas, but they also were raising funds to open a Zen monastery. Finally there was Madson, son of a lapsed Catholic and a Jack Mormon, a man who’d spent so much time plotting American death rates in thermonuclear conflict that he eventually threw his hands up in despair and decided to try something less stressful, like running a bookstore where he could serve tea to customers.
Thompson wasn’t able to raise the money for his monastery. Instead he joined up with Madson, whose own knowledge of capitalism amounted to the best methods for conducting nuclear warfare. “We were pretty sophisticated about systems thinking then,” says Madson, who resembles a forgotten member of Peter, Paul, and Mary. “We got out a city map and drew circles around potential locales with population densities.” One particular circle, around West Hollywood, was intriguing: It was packed with what they imagined to be a receptive audience. They found a house for rent on Melrose that could be converted into a bookstore, then applied for a business license, making sure, says Madson, “that we didn’t present ourselves as anti-Christian or purveyors of ‘adult’ literature.” (In the ’70s, shops like the Bodhi Tree were often called “occult”; the term later changed to “metaphysical,” then “New Age,” and finally “spirituality.”) They named their store Bodhi Tree Book and Tea Shop—after the sacred ficus under which Buddha found enlightenment—and then shortened it to Bodhi Tree Bookstore. They had no idea what would sell, so they stocked what they liked. They knew nothing of advertising, so they plastered flyers on telephone poles. By the end of their first year in business, during which time they vigilantly reviewed their receipts, both had left Douglas.
“Neither Stan nor I ever became good businessmen,” says Thompson, “but that was OK—we could hire people to do most of the other stuff.” Thompson looks as if he might still work at Douglas. He keeps his hair trimmed, wears boxy glasses, and is fond of polo shirts belted into khakis. As an engineer, he worked on problems of celestial mechanics, which sounds appropriate for someone who would one day run a metaphysical bookstore. Both men are in their seventies and share a serene, warm temperament one associates with years of Tibetan breath work, as if the contents of their shelves have through the years seeped into them like water. They are formal around each other and mum about their relationship. Asked what he likes about Thompson and why their partnership has lasted so long, Madson will answer, “Uh, that’s hard to say.” After four decades, their friendship has settled, reached a reckoning with the store’s closing. Whatever its harmonics, their association has outlasted almost every New Age bookstore that came after the Bodhi Tree.
In the not-too-distant past, three kinds of specialty bookstores were thriving in L.A.: comic-book stores, adult bookstores, and New Age bookstores. The comics are still doing fine; after all, they provide Hollywood the story lines for most popcorn films. Adult bookstores succumbed quickly to the Internet. New Age bookstores may have been a casualty of their greatest booster, Shirley MacLaine. Researching her spiritual memoir, Out on a Limb, MacLaine spent many hours at the Bodhi Tree. As Madson and Thompson tell it, the actress read nearly everything in their store, then translated it for the rest of the country. If New Age spirituality needed an ambassador to Middle America, MacLaine came from central casting. She had been a creation of the ’50s, a song-and-dance girl who vamped with the Rat Pack and had no truck with “the hippy-dippies,” as she calls them in her memoir.
Her book is a wild ride. In it she discovers that angels are aliens who drive Pontiacs when they’re not piloting saucers or guiding souls to the next life. Describing her visits to the Bodhi Tree, she refers only to an owner named “John,” who tells her his eight-year-old son is actually his reincarnated father. (“Wasn’t me,” says Thompson; “I don’t recall that conversation,” says Madson.) Yet Mac-Laine grounds her magic narrative in the concrete, in her feelings of being unfulfilled by career or relationships with men. Out on a Limb was ridiculed on its release in 1983, but it struck a mighty chord, with 3 million copies going to print. It may have been the most popular book on American spirituality written by a woman up to that time. MacLaine’s blockbuster made the Bodhi Tree a blockbuster, too. “For whatever reason,” says Thompson, “everything just lined up after MacLaine’s book. Ram Dass had been saying some of the same stuff for years. But Ram Dass didn’t hang out with the Rat Pack.” The store became so popular, it eventually employed 100 people, answering the needs of searchers wanting what MacLaine had found. “I can remember them coming in,” says Thompson, “asking if they could stand by the shelf where MacLaine said that the right book had just fallen onto her head one day.”
By then L.A. was up to its chakras in New Age bookstores, places like the Magick Circle, House of Hermetic, the Phoenix, Alexandria II, and the Psychic Eye. The wave they rode would recede in the ’90s, after Deepak Chopra moved to Southern California, Wayne Dyer became a national hit, and The Celestine Prophecy topped the best-seller list. New Age went mainstream. Barnes & Noble, smelling money in Eastern spirituality, quickly poured gurus of all stripes into its aisles. Seekers no longer made the pilgrimage to West Hollywood. Business at the Bodhi Tree declined steadily, until last year Madson and Thompson—both of whom have struggled with health issues—reached the painful decision to sell their enterprise. The property, worth more than the business, sold in 2010. If no takers claim the Bodhi Tree’s name and contents by October—with the provision that the package must be moved elsewhere—the shop will shut down for good.
The store that Madson and Thompson are now offering still carries the ancient mysteries promising explanations of the universe. Framed photos of swamis dead and alive still hang alongside the racks of scented oils, Egyptian tchotchkes, sparkling crystals, and mandalas. But the Bodhi Tree where Mac-Laine found enlightenment doesn’t exist anymore. Its shelves have been pored over, its enigmas regurgitated into easily digested best-sellers like The Power of Now and The Secret, a book concerned with the spirituality of wealth accumulation. Today, surveying the shoppers on West Melrose, it’s easy to imagine any one of them reading The Secret, though not Krishnamurti. “People aren’t so interested in the original masters anymore,” says Thompson. The block has moved on while the Bodhi Tree has stayed put.
Illustration by Michael Kirkham