The Bodhi Tree Bookstore:
An End of an Era
The downturn of the economy and competition of chain bookstores led to the closing of the long time metaphysical bookstore in Los Angeles.
By Allan Hartley
Neisha Ghiatis, office manager at the Bodhi Tree Bookstore, recently told me that it was in escrow and would be closed in two years. The bookstore has been in operation for 40 years, and for 32 of them she has been one of the guiding personnel. For many people in the Los Angeles region this was the place to go for books and magazines on Metaphysics, Eastern philosophy and alternative health practices.
Prior to the internet and the chain bookstores with their discounted books, it was enjoyable to spend time browsing their shelves, maybe have some tea, and look up to find your current favorite guru's picture among those that were lined up on the wall above you. Mine were Krishnamurti and Swami Satchidananda.
Ghiatis said, the owners, Stan Madson and Phil Thompson, were looking for someone to buy their inventory of books and new age merchandise. The employees were also told that they could purchase the business and continue operating as the Bodhi Tree in a different location.
It is the end of an era in the sense of what it stands for-the adventure of self discovery, of finding one's way in the plethora of gurus and self help books. The Bodhi Tree is typical of the metaphysical or new age community center with its books, magazines, cards, and metaphysical paraphernalia. It is unique because it's in a great location in West Hollywood on Melrose, it was started in the heyday of the new age in 1970, it grew fast and had to expand quickly. Few if any of the other metaphysical centers could claim the revenue or the clientele.
The Bodhi Tree had a big boost in sales when Shirley MacLaine's book, Out on a Limb, came out with a reference to the store in it. Within a few months of this, Ghiatis stated, they went from 50 to 105 employees. This was the place to go to check on the bulletin board for the latest speaker who wrote a book on spiritual transformation, etc. As MacLaine discovered it was serendipity to find, without forethought, just the right book to take you on the next step toward yoga or meditation which then, maybe led to Buddhism. It wasn't without controversy - this New Age period. When MacLaine's book came out she had her detractors. We, at New Perspectives magazine (Perspectives, February 1989), came to her defense when a professor of law at Pepperdine University, F. LaGard came out with a book he called Out on a Broken Limb. Our reviewer, Vivian Laughrey, explains that LaGard's book is defending traditional Christian values instead of using, as it said on the back cover that, "he examines the case against the philosophies and trendy, Westernized versions of Eastern mysticism" in MacLaine's book. She herself, in Out on a Limb, says, "I thought for a long time before I published it, because it is the written expression of a spiritual odyssey that took me further than I ever expected to go, into an astonishing and moving world of psychic phenomena where past lives, the existence of the spirit guides, and genuine immortality of the soul became more than concepts to me-they became real, true parts of my life."
It was in 2005 that Ghiatis told me that they had a list of esoteric books that Elvis Presley read. I was amazed first to find that he read these kinds of books and secondly that they had compiled such a list. She told me that Larry Geller, who traveled with Elvis, had frequented the bookstore for many years, "and still comes in." It was Geller that suggested Elvis read these books. Ghiatis introduced me to Geller who is considered "a long time personal friend and customer of the Bodhi Tree." After some emailing back and forth with Geller, a cover story came out of it: "Elvis Presley and His Spiritual Journey: Including Emphasis on the Books He Read" (New Perspectives Fall, 2005). We still have a few left for sale as memorabilia.
It is obvious that Madson and Thompson, aerospace engineers, caught the spiritual energy that was emerging from a hidden stream of consciousness called the New Age. As they caught this spirit they wanted to make what they found available to others. Today, when asked what they got out of doing this for 40 years, they answer in a low key, non assuming way: "They came away with no major revelations." Thompson said "He has found that the most important things in his life are relationships, family and children." This may not be what one would expect to hear from those who dealt with so many ideas and personages over such a long period, but it is in keeping with their age-both in their late 70s.
I pressed Ghiatis that there must be more to be gained from this long period of exposure to these books and to learn first hand from people who led the Human Potential, Eastern philosophy, Metaphysical, and New Thought movements. She said that, Madson and Thompson were not the kind of people who would go around telling others how to live. Instead, what they gleaned over the years was woven into how they lived and managed the business. They had been aerospace engineers (as had there friend, Bernie Glassman, "Zen Approach to Social Justice", New Perspectives Summer 2006) so they were good at the technical part of reviewing and setting up procedures for the business. But their approach with employees and customers had a spiritual quality of care and service, from the heart.
After all of these ideas become merged within the mainstream consciousness and it is no longer a lifestyle in which one has to go on an adventure to find a missing spiritual component of their life-then what? Having lived through this era, I find myself thinking that I will need to find something new to get absorbed in since society has taken over those things it was afraid of-yoga no longer frowned on for being something one must twist themselves into a pretzel to do; a vegetarian isn't considered a health nut anymore, but vegetarianism is now recognized as a healthy diet; many of the TV programs are about psychics and the paranormal whereas if you mentioned these 40 years ago you would be ostracized; and most people have accepted diversity of religions in this country now. I wonder if Thompson and Madson saw it this way-that they had nurtured these movements to the point of acceptance by society-that their job was done. However, I thought, maybe this was a little unsettling to them, too. It is now in the hands of the consumers instead of the "seekers."
Thompson told the Los Angeles Times on January 18 that, "I have an ordinary life and feel good about it most of the time." And Madson said, "He is grateful for the chance to have helped people find inspiration." That appears to me is karma yoga- just do the work and serve others.