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Sentient Reading

October 30, 1994|KRISTINE MC KENNA

It was 24 years ago that L.A.'s center for all things metaphysical, the Bodhi Tree Bookstore, opened for business on Melrose Avenue. The brainchild of Stan Madson and Phil Thompson, engineers for Douglas Aircraft who were swept up in the social revolution of the '60s and were itching to get out of the aerospace industry, the store was launched (with a third partner, Dan Morris) with a modest nest egg of $18,000 and an inventory of 2,000 books. "Our clientele then was mostly made up of people from the hippie street community, but the audience for the material we carry has changed dramatically since then," says Stan Madson. "Everyone seems to have some interest in metaphysics now, and people from all walks of life come into the store."

The growing audience for metaphysics has led the Bodhi Tree to grow as well. Their original stock of 2,000 has expanded to 29,000 titles, they distribute a quarterly mail-order catalogue to 43,000 people around the world, and they've taken over the buildings on both sides of their original location. The building to the north houses their used-book branch, while the recently acquired building to the east is used for author events, musical recitals and workshops.

"We'd been growing steadily since we opened," says Madson, "but when Shirley MacLaine published her book 'Out On a Limb' in 1983, our business doubled in a matter of days. In her book she talked about finding certain materials in our store, and when she did a TV series based on the book in 1987 parts of it were shot here. She struck a root with that book--what she did basically was move metaphysics into the mainstream--and publishers started putting out 10 times as many books on metaphysical subjects as they had before. Almost every city in America has a metaphysical bookstore today, and there are 15 of them in L.A. now."

With an inventory that encompasses everything from Buddhism and Eastern thought, Theosophy, homeopathy and the healing arts, literature and poetry, to the Tarot, astrology, witchcraft and ritual magic, the Bodhi Tree's area of interest is "anything that can act as a means of transforming the mind," says Madson. This is an endeavor that's subject to trend, and at the moment the trendiest metaphysical book is James Redfield's "The Celestine Prophesy" (which is stocked as fiction here). "That's been our bestseller for several months," says Madson. "Another big seller right now is 'The Artist's Way' by Julia Cameron."

Metaphysical fads come and go, but a handful of titles sell steadily year after year. "Books like 'Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind' by Suzuki Roshi, and 'The Secret Teachings of All Ages' by Manly Palmer Hall have sold well since our first day of business," says Madson. "We publish a booklet called 'A Basic Booklist for Metaphysical Inquiry' that lists about 600 titles and those books never go out of print."

In addition to books, which are acquired at a rate of 1,000 new titles per year by head buyer Marc Labinger, the store also carries crystals, jewelery, 500 types of incense, I Ching coins, oils, elixirs and other grooming products, Tibetan backpacks and aroma therapy items. It doesn't stock hard-core head-shop items such as hash pipes and bongs; the Bodhi Tree isn't about blowing your mind, rather, it sees itself as part of a venerated L.A. tradition.

"Because of the diverse racial mix of Southern California, metaphysical movements have flourished here since the beginning of the century," says Madson. "Krishnamurti hung out here, Aimee Semple MacPherson was here, the Theosophical people had a lodge in the Larchmont area--there've been various types of splinter groups here for a long time. This is no longer just an L.A. thing, though," he adds. "In the years since we opened the Bodhi Tree, the metaphysical community has exploded, and things that were once dismissed as 'crackpot L.A. stuff' are taken seriously by people around the world."

The Bodhi Tree, at 8585 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

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