On a summer afternoon in Moscow, shortly after Sputnik circled the Earth in 1957, American astronomer Al Wilson was attending a series of meetings with Soviet geophysicists.
On the final day of the meetings, a Soviet professor, G. Tikhov, gave a garden party in Wilson’s honor. After many toasts, Tikhov strolled over to a tree in the middle of the garden.
It was a ginkgo, one of the most ancient species of plant life on Earth. In the Soviet Union, Tikhov said, whenever friends part, they pluck leaves from the tree and exchange them to signify that their friendship is as enduring as the ginkgo.
Tikhov gave a ginkgo leaf to Wilson.
Many years later, Al Wilson’s wife, Donna, chose this leaf for the name of her bookstore in Woodland Hills. Bookmarks handed out at the Ginkgo Leaf say the store’s purpose is to “feature books whose stories and messages have endured and hold promise to endure into the future.”
The store, fronted by a triangular hedge of South African honeysuckle, resembles a sprawling California bungalow and is adorned with a row of faded windsocks and a small wood sign. It is situated in a neighborhood, just east of Topanga Canyon Boulevard, known for its winding streets canopied by pepper trees.
Customers of the Ginkgo Leaf often compare its eclectic mix of reading material to that of the Bodhi Tree, the big New Age bookstore on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles recently made more famous by Shirley MacLaine’s visits and her book, “Out on a Limb.” And Stan Madson, co-owner of the Bodhi Tree, agrees that the clientele at the two stores is similar. But Wilson said she stocks the Ginkgo Leaf with more family-oriented books. She carries many books written for children of alcoholics and recovering alcoholics. The Ginkgo Leaf also stocks books about pregnancy, child care and children (“He Hit Me Back First,” “The Read Aloud Book,” “Your Child’s Self-Esteem”).
“The difference with us and the Bodhi Tree is that we carry an equal mix of Western (and Eastern) religion,” said Wilson, 56, peering over her Ben Franklin eyeglasses. “We don’t identify entirely with the East. . .”
The Ginkgo Leaf is about one-fifth the size of the Bodhi Tree, but it manages to pack in everything from Jung and Gurdjieff to “Secrets of the Gnomes” and a video on “The Psychic Vortex Experience.” Besides its 9,000 titles, the store carries crystals, New Age music, greeting cards, incense, massage accessories and homeopathic remedies.
According to Donna Wilson, a “typical customer” is an upper-middle-class, materially successful woman in her 30s or 40s “dissatisfied with her outer life and interested in developing her inner resources.” Wilson said she noticed an increase in customers after MacLaine started publishing her multivolume autobiography, but this hasn’t translated into big sales.
The Ginkgo Leaf also houses a large room set aside for meditation. “This space is very important because of the atmosphere it creates,” Donna Wilson said. “People come in here to be quiet and to get away from the stress and the noise of the city.”
Wilson makes the room available to yoga classes, tai chi, Tarot cards, astrology and I Ching readings.
The Bodhi Tree’s Madson is envious of Wilson’s extra room.
“We have been looking for a space to do things like that for a long time,” Madson said. “But, with the way books are being published today, you need the space.”
Running a bookstore is only the latest of Donna Wilson’s careers. In the 1950s, she was an astronomer at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, which in those days meant “freezing to death in minus-20 degree temperatures . . . and climbing around on stepladders all night long. Today, observing means sitting in a nice warm room with a console in front of you and pushing a few buttons.”
After their marriage in 1961, Al (who holds degrees in physics and mathematics) and Donna Wilson (who earned astronomy and mathematics degrees) worked for the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica. Their were involved in such wide-ranging projects as developing a basic philosophy for space exploration and bringing corporate officials together with key leaders of the protest movement.
The couple became known as Rand’s “token pacifists.”
They later began a master of liberal arts program at USC, which attempted to help students discover their own “world view.” Developing such an outlook, the Wilsons said, means restructuring people’s lives and their turning to spirituality and inner development.
After her work at USC, Donna Wilson took over a Topanga Canyon health food store and restaurant. Al Wilson, 69, began a computer consulting business in the couple’s Woodland Hills home. In 1981, they opened the Ginkgo Leaf. (Donna Wilson also lectures in the community and at universities on nutrition.)
The Ginkgo Leaf’s salespeople are seldom anchored to the cash register. They often sit with customers and discuss “mind-body connections, catalytic-empowered art classes and last night’s macrobiotic dinner.”
“Everyone that has worked here was a customer first,” Wilson said, intermittently sipping herbal tea and taking drags off thin brown cigarettes. “We really focus on service. That’s where the real satisfaction comes--in matching the right book with the right customer.
“I wanted to run a kind of store that I myself would like to shop in.”
“If you use the right accounting sheets, the store is successful. If you use the profit-and-loss accounting sheet, it’s not successful. If you look at the satisfaction of actually helping people in changing their lives, in putting the right books in the right hands, then it’s tremendously successful.”