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Boom Traces Some of Roots to Bodhi Tree

Trends: Westside bookshop played key role in actress' quest, which fueled public interest. Despite chains' inroads, the store is thriving.


The Bodhi Tree Bookstore stands at the metaphysical crossroads of Greater Los Angeles.

With more than 30,000 tomes covering everything from Christian mysticism and Buddhist philosophy to crystals and magic to such modern-day self-help guides as "Powermind" and "Law of Success," the Bodhi Tree--at Melrose Avenue and La Cienega Boulevard--helped launch today's spiritual book boom.

In 1983, actress Shirley MacLaine published a spiritual memoir detailing her furious search for spiritual knowledge about reincarnation, trance channeling and other metaphysical themes in the aisles of the Bodhi Tree. After the international bestseller was broadcast in 1987 as a TV adaptation--part of which was filmed in the store--customers tripled to 1,200 a day from 300, said Stan Madson, bookstore co-owner.

But the Bodhi Tree and similar stores enjoyed the boom only until the mass retailers caught on.

Madson said the Bodhi Tree's gross revenues are 25% below their 1990 level. Mass retailers, he said, tend to offer only the most popular--and lucrative--titles and discount them aggressively. The bestseller "Conversations With God, Part 1," with a suggested retail price of $19.95, was discounted to $13.95 by both Barnes & Noble and, compared to $15.96 at Bodhi Tree.

"As this goes more mainstream, the necessity to go to your local metaphysical store has lessened," Madson said. "Some people are not comfortable going to a store laden with incense . . . but they're not uncomfortable going into Barnes & Noble."

A number of local metaphysical bookshops have closed, including the Phoenix Bookstore in Santa Monica, Gingko Leaf in Woodland Hills, New Age Emporium in Altadena, Look Within in Arcadia and Pegasus Metaphysical Books & Gifts in Redondo Beach.

The Bodhi Tree is surviving on the clientele the store has built up in its nearly three decades. Madson and co-owner Phil Thompson launched the shop in 1970, when they walked away from jobs as aerospace engineers to search for ways of becoming "productive and good citizens" against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, civil rights demonstrations and the peace and love of the '60s generation.

Along with their wives and a third couple, who have since dropped out, they settled on a bookstore to offer the public a complete collection of wisdom from the world's religious traditions.

The shop, named for the tree under which Buddha sat when he attained enlightenment, found its audience almost immediately. Beginning with 2,000 titles, focusing on Eastern spiritualism and the mystical traditions of established faiths, the store annually doubled in size for the first several years and now carries more than 30,000 titles in 480 subject areas.

It also offers incense, candles, meditation pillows, tapes and CDs, specialty magazines, Buddhist prayer beads and religious statues from around the world, ranging from Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god, to goddess fertility figures.

In the last three years, revenues have stabilized, Madson says.

The store has vastly stepped up its workshop offerings in an annex added three years ago. Nearly every day, patrons may meet authors or experience spiritual practices free of charge: Indian kirtan music, Tarot card seminars, aromatherapy and other relaxation programs, the traditional Indian art of body painting known as mehndi, touch healing by the worldwide head of the mystical Essene Church, or lectures on Forshang Buddhism, Ecumene ("an ecology of yoga for a new stellar civilization") and the like.

The store has also launched a book review and Web page and an annual directory of community services, such as vegetarian restaurants and astrologers. And the Bodhi Tree is considering restarting in-house Tarot card readings and other psychic services.

"The events have really rekindled a lot of the old magic," Thompson said.

The Bodhi Tree may no longer be the biggest kid on the block, but Madson and Thompson are practicing what many of their books preach: seeking to find lessons and meaning in all of life's developments, even if they appear adverse.

"It is interesting that the pressure to become more competitive has brought new vitality to us," Thompson said.

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