Booksellers step out from beneath the Bodhi Tree

For 40 years, the Bodhi Tree Bookstore on Melrose Avenue has served as the metaphysical mecca of Los Angeles.

Inside, seekers of varied spiritual persuasions gather for exploration, contemplation and personal transformation amid soothing music, the aroma of pungent incense and the tinkling of wind chimes under the benevolent gaze of dozens of sages whose pictures hang on the wall as blessings. The store’s 35,000 books traverse a dizzying array of disciplines, from Christianity and Buddhism to energy healing and nutrition.

Hector Gallardou, a 39-year-old airport security worker, was there on a Friday night exploring oracle cards. Kennethia Cole, a substitute teacher, is looking for incense and tomes on intuition. Other customers have included actress Shirley MacLaine, who brought international fame to the Bodhi Tree in 1983 by chronicling how her metaphysical journey started there.

Now the iconic bookstore is set to undergo a major transformation of its own. Faced with years of declining sales and their own desire to move on, the septuagenarian store owners Stan Madson and Phil Thompson sold the West Hollywood property to a local corporation, which they said they would not identify until escrow closes next year. They are searching for someone to buy the Bodhi Tree inventory and name and continue the store in a different location.

“We want to see if anyone has the energy to carry this on,” Madson said. “Part of it is just facing the fact that we can’t do this forever. The mind is strong but the body is weak.”

The bookstore’s demise underscores the philosophy so many of its tomes teach: Life is impermanence.

Huge changes in the publishing industry, the mainstreaming of once-exotic ideas about spirituality and the economic downturn have hurt the store’s sales.

The “MacLaine boom” in the mid-1980s pushed up daily customer sales from 300 to 1,800 almost overnight; they are down to about 200 today, Madson and Thompson said. Annual revenue is about $2 million, compared with a peak of $5 million in the 1990s, Madson said. The last two years have been particularly brutal, with sales down about 15% each year.

Four decades ago, the spiritual marketplace was far different. At the time, Madson and Thompson were aerospace engineers involved in missiles, space projects and thermonuclear war games. Both had fallen away from their families’ religious traditions: Roman Catholicism for Madson, Protestantism for Thompson.

Then the 1960s hit. Fellow engineer Bernie Glassman, who would go on to become a renowned Zen roshi, started talking about Buddhism at work. The Beatles were introducing the world to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and transcendental meditation. The thirst for English-language information about these exotic spiritual movements led Madson, Thompson and a third partner, Dan Morris, to launch the Bodhi Tree in 1970.

The partners invested $18,000 to lease a two-bedroom bungalow on Melrose, then a quiet street of mostly antique stores, and buy 2,000 titles. Thompson said they wanted to create a “Library of Alexandria” that would gather the world’s wisdom traditions under one roof. They named the store after the place where the Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment.

Amid the spiritual hunger and social ferment of the times, the store immediately took off, doubling its sales nearly every year. In 1976, the owners bought the property. Later, they would build a second floor and buy two adjacent properties for a used bookstore and meeting place.

“People were asking about meaning in their lives,” Thompson recalled. “We thought it was important to have a store that could offer literature that was interesting and useful to this question.”

The store’s turning point came in 1983, when actress Shirley MacLaine published “Out on a Limb,” an account of her metaphysical exploration of channeling, meditation and out-of-body experiences that began in the aisles of the Bodhi Tree.

Sales skyrocketed as visitors came from all over the world. The store drew renowned authors and speakers such as Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle, Robert Thurman, Caroline Myss and Thich Nhat Hanh. The Bodhi Tree became not just a bookstore but the premier destination for inquiring minds, free spirits and spiritual adventurers.

“The Bodhi Tree was church for a lot of folk who weren’t necessarily Christian or Jewish but interested in religion and spirituality,” said Phyllis Tickle, a religion author and lecturer.

But as interest in spirituality grew, others jumped into the marketplace. Major publishers launched their own lines for New Age and religious books. Chain bookstores began carrying the most popular titles and could discount them more heavily. Internet sales boomed. And a host of entrepreneurs began opening their own spiritual bookstores.

Madson said the store received at least one or two inquiries a week from people wanting to launch stores like the Bodhi Tree.

“We helped introduce this kind of material to a wider audience,” Thompson said. “But what we didn’t realize was that it might marginalize our own business.”

Tickle, noting that public interest in spirituality has gone mainstream, said that specialty bookstores like the Bodhi Tree face tough challenges.

“Those days of the mystique of the Bodhi Tree are probably gone,” she said. “An era has ended and a new thing comes.”

Whatever that will be, Madson and Thompson say they will not be involved financially. Madson said he plans to continue his personal spiritual explorations, travel with his wife, read 200 new books and reread 5,000.

Thompson also looks forward to traveling and spending time with his three children and dogs.

After four decades of delving into the wisdom traditions of the world, the men say they come away with no major revelations. Thompson said he has found that the most important things in his life are relationships, family and children.

“I don’t know if I found the secret to anything,” Thompson said. “I have an ordinary life and feel good about it most of the time.”

Madson said he is grateful for the chance to have helped people find inspiration.

“This general material has helped people live better and transform their lives,” Madson said, “and that’s sort of nice.”