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From Zen to now: After 40 years, Bodhi Tree Bookstore is closing

The cozy store on Melrose Avenue — with its incense, herbal teas and portraits of sages on the walls — has served as a spiritual mecca for seekers of all persuasions, including Jerry Brown, Ringo Starr and Shirley MacLaine. Its owners hope it can be reborn at a different location.

December 30, 2011|By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times
  • Bailey Cislowski, 10, finds a bright spot in which to read at the Bodhi Tree Bookstore, which is closing its doors Saturday after serving as L.A.'s metaphysical mecca for four decades. Its owners hope it can be reborn at a different location.
Bailey Cislowski, 10, finds a bright spot in which to read at the Bodhi Tree… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

For nearly a decade, Sandra Acosta and Noe Ramirez made a monthly pilgrimage to the Bodhi Tree Bookstore on Melrose Avenue in search of life wisdom.

Enveloped in the aroma of incense and the gentle strains of meditative music, the Long Beach couple would explore books on martial arts, women's spirituality, Native American philosophy, Zen Buddhism and whatever else piqued their curiosity.

But their visit Friday would be their last.

The bookstore will close its doors at 5:30 p.m. Saturday after four decades of serving as a world-renowned spiritual mecca for seekers of all persuasions — including Gov. Jerry Brown, Beatle Ringo Starr and actress Shirley MacLaine, whose memoir chronicled how her metaphysical journey began at the Bodhi Tree in 1983.

"I'm heartbroken," said Acosta, 34, a graduate student in philosophy. "This is like our church. There is no other place like it."

Owners Stan Madson and Phil Thompson said they were optimistic that the bookstore would be reborn at a different location just outside West Hollywood. They are in negotiations with a potential buyer of the Bodhi Tree name, its website and database.

The men, both septuagenarians, said the time had come to pass the torch. Daily customer sales have fallen from about 1,800 at its peak in the 1990s to about 175 today; annual revenue dropped from $5 million to $1.7 million during that same period.

"It's still tough sledding for independent bookstores," said Jim Milliot, editorial director for Publishers Weekly, citing the burdens of a bad economy and aggressive competition from online retailers like Amazon.com.

Madson said he had seen the need to change the business for some years.

The store could have added more non-book items, such as yoga clothing. It could have set up a live-streaming capacity to expand the audience for Bodhi Tree speakers — who have included Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, world religion author Huston Smith, medium James Van Praagh and spiritual teachers Marianne Williamson, Carolyn Myss and Deepak Chopra.

But, Madson said, he wasn't quite comfortable or interested in evolving.

"We're in some sense a little bit hidebound," he said.

Former aerospace engineers who had fallen away from their family traditions of Christianity, Madson and Thompson became intrigued by Buddhism and other Eastern religions that were starting to filter into 1960s pop culture. They wanted to build a "Library of Alexandria" that would gather under one roof English-language tomes on the world's wisdom traditions.

The store, opened in 1970, was a sensation. Named after the place where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment, the Bodhi Tree exploded in popularity with MacLaine's book "Out on a Limb" and the subsequent TV series.

But as interest in spirituality mushroomed, mainstream stores began carrying the once-exotic books and more entrepreneurs entered the field — some aided by advice from Madson and Thompson.

Their generosity may have contributed to their own demise, the men mused. But it also created a far-flung community of supporters, many of whom have flocked to the store in recent weeks to say goodbye and to snap up items at an 80% discount.

Some people have burst into tears, Thompson said. Others have shared stories about the Bodhi Tree saving their lives by offering a place of refuge to pull themselves out of negative lifestyles.

"There's happiness and sorrow," Thompson said Friday. "But with the book world undergoing such change, it feels OK to turn it over to newer and more creative minds."

Both men said they felt gratified to have built an enterprise that has helped so many people over so many years.

Medik Babaloyan, a 50-year-old information technology program manager, said she had been coming to the Bodhi Tree since 1987 in search of books to help friends and family in need.

When her parents were suffering from cancer and strokes, she said, she bought them books on macrobiotic diets and alternative healing. When friends needed books on meditation or Hindu masters, Babaloyan found them at the Bodhi Tree.

"This is an amazing place," she said Friday as she picked out books on diet and exercise. "A lot of tomes mainstream stores wouldn't touch, these people would embrace."

John Robertson, a 62-year-old actor, and Paul Murphy, a 48-year-old antique restorer, have been Bodhi Tree regulars for three decades.

Robertson recalled arriving from Chicago in 1979 and being directed by friends to the bookstore, where he explored Buddhism, astrology, numerology, martial arts, yoga and philosophy.

"If you were curious about anything, you could find it here," he said. "It was like a garden."

Murphy said the Bodhi Tree — with its incense and complimentary herbal teas, its portraits of sages on the walls — had positive vibes that made a visit there more than merely a book-browsing experience.

"People go to church for the same reason," he said. "That collective energy is what all of us want."

If all goes well, Thompson and Madson said, people will still continue to gather at the church of the Bodhi Tree. Information on the store's next incarnation will be posted on the website at http://www.bodhitree.com, on the store's Facebook page or via email at bodhitree@bodhitree.com.

"We're retailers like Wal-Mart, but we've been able to bring into the world something fraught with meaning," Thompson said.

"It's a real celebration," Madson added. "This is seen as a place that helped people transform."

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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