To Illuminate the Heart and Mind: The Bodhi Tree Bookstore Mirage

Ronnie Pontiac
Mar 8 · 14 min read

Like a Tibetan wind horse for decades the flag of the Bodhi Tree Bookstore rode the breeze above Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood. At first the freak flag flew to attract only the most underground. Then it became the flag over the capitol of the New Age. Who could count the number of homes that have known the complementary Bodhi Tree bookmark, with its tree logo, and the slogan: Books to Illuminate the Heart and Mind?

At first, run by hippies for hippies, with only a few portraits of spiritual masters on the walls, it seemed like a mirage conspired by a couple of drop outs. But then punk rockers arrived, because at the Bodhi Tree they could find books by William Burroughs, Patti Smith and Bukowski. As the New Age grew from a trickle to a great river, for enthusiasts the Bodhi Tree became not only the top destination in Southern California, but for many, in the United States.

Larry Geller went to Bodhi Tree to buy books for Elvis. Once and future governor Jerry Brown spent weekend hours intently reading. The first musical performance at Bodhi Tree featured 1960s rock legend Donovan. Timothy Leary popped in one October day to gleefully sign Happy Halloween in all copies of his books. Buckminster Fuller held an event on the front lawn. How many stores were born from visits to the Bodhi Tree? Certainly the majority of the first wave of New Age bookstores and gift shops.

How many millions of people visited Bodhi Tree, we can never know, especially after 1983 when Shirley MacLaine took the New Age mainstream with her autobiographical book Out on a Limb, where she wrote that a book destined to change her life mysteriously dropped into her hands. That didn’t happen at the Bodhi Tree, but it says something about the store that everybody seems to think it did. In 1987, Out on a Limb was adapted for television making an even bigger splash. The Bodhi Tree had to hire parking attendants. From opening to closing every room was crowded.

Stan and Phil were a couple of rocket scientists, aerospace engineers to be exact. They weren’t the only young people who wanted to do something more positive with their lives at the end of the 1960s, but they are among the few who actually did. They created the Bodhi Tree Bookstore. In an interview with Ray Hemachandra in 2006, Stan talked about the origins of the Bodhi Tree Bookstore. It all began when he attended an event headlined by Timothy Leary:

“Tim Leary was there in a white gown, and he opened by having The Grateful Dead play music. I had never heard of The Grateful Dead. Leary said the idea was to tune in, turn on, and drop out.” But Stan was working in aerospace, he couldn’t take the plunge.

Next came Zen meditation. Then a serendipitous meeting while on a walk in Calabasas led to” a session of private talks with Krishnamurti on an estate in Malibu. So, about thirty of us were sitting around talking with Krishnamurti.” Transcendental meditation followed. “Out of all of this, and sitting around and talking amongst ourselves, we decided that there was something intrinsically wrong with doing aerospace and supporting the practice of thermonuclear war.” Years later, looking back on his life, he expressed his happiness that he had found “right livelihood.”

Stan and Phil presided over the proceedings with the keenly aware gaze and paternal calm of experienced meditators, not your average bosses. They started the Bodhi Tree for $18,000, leasing a two bedroom bungalow on Melrose. Traditional book stores weren’t carrying the kinds of books Stan, Phil and their friends, their entire generation, wanted to read. They were going to fix that. The ideal they had in mind was the Library of Alexandria.

The songs on the radio the year the Bodhi Tree opened almost tell its story. The Beatles broke up. You can be sure “The Long and Winding Road” was playing on the transistor radio when they were hammering together the shelves and painting the walls in the modest Bodhi Tree 1.0. “Let it Be” had been on the radio for a few months already, along with Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Sly and the Family Stone had a hit with “Everybody is a Star,” a song title to bring a smile to the face of any Platonist, Paracelsian, or Thelemite.

On July 10 1970 the Bodhi Tree opened. Bodhi Tree’s first Christmas, George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” was number one. But Janis Joplin had just died that October. Jimi Hendrix had died only a few weeks before Janis. Jim Morrison would die the following summer. Soon the clean mellow sound of California folk pop, the introspection of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Carole King, ruled the airwaves. People turned inward in search of answers to suddenly pressing questions about the meaning of life, the laws of good health, and the history of human spirituality. By 1976 the Bodhi Tree’s business had doubled then redoubled and so on so rapidly that they bought the building. A third partner bowed out leaving Stan and Phil to a labor of love they themselves didn’t expect to last very long.

In 1978, the small bookcase of used books grew into a stucco cottage next door that became Bodhi Tree Used Book Branch. It had a few shelves on the porch outside the old wooden door offering free books at any hour. When shoppered entered they breathed in the aromatic delights of the herb room. Shelves of big mason jars filled with dried lavender, rose petals, licorice root, eyebright, star anise, chamomile, eucalyptus leaves, and of course catnip.

Walking around the corner, you passed the discounted merchandise table and the old fashioned cash register on your left, and the tall double shelves of collectible books on your right. Straight ahead, a narrow bench where heaping carboard boxes of newly priced books were scooped up by collectors before they even made it to the shelves. The Used Branch had a spiritual mission to get the right books in the right hands. Once they understood your interests they made suggestions for further explorations.

The Bodhi Tree had a long lineage of cats who quietly ruled the premises. One by one their pictures went up on the wall as over the decades their bodies were buried under the big fig tree, like the one Buddha meditated under. The last cat to reign over Bodhi Tree was plump little Lucia, who at first would wander in occasionally, but then, when her nearby owner died, she took up residence. We were on a head bump basis. Most of the cats preferred the quiet and easy backyard access of the Bodhi Tree Used Branch.

You could be sure that anyone who worked at the Used Branch would at some point involve you in a fascinating conversation about anything from the way thunderstorms clear the ether to their experiences traveling in Tibet. Sometimes they told you their own stories, how they arrived a mess, and in the comfort of the refuge provided by Stan and Phil they blossomed into authors, artists and teachers. If they liked you they’d call you when they knew they were getting a box of treasures, which they would sell to you at very fair prices, and when necessary, they offered layaway. Many great book collections came from the Used Branch.

The Bodhi Tree new branch became a cornucopia of imported and domestic handcrafted art, wonderful gift cards, crystals, handmade jewelry, candles, chimes, dream catchers, statues, oils, incenses, a great glass case of every possible deck of tarot cards. The adorable children’s section not only had a wonderful selection of books but also small chairs for small people. Obscure magazines on spiritual topics from all over the world filled long shelves. Small independent publishers were assured the attention they deserved, not only by the staff, but also on the new arrivals table that everyone loved to circle upon first entering. Nearby a glass case offered a variety of prayer beads. When necessary, Stan did the plumbing, he was an engineer, after all.

The Bodhi Tree never judged you. You could find Christian books on angels and The Satanic Bible, the latest translation of the Flower Ornament Sutra, or the most obscure Sufi poetry. Sure, sometimes you had to dodge surly sikhs, fallen Catholics, and wannabe cult leaders. Women had to beware of creeps who hit on them by offering a free palm reading, or the inevitable game of guess your sign. Like heroes and heroines in fairy tales those who got past the trolls were rewarded with unexpected treasures. Serendipity lived at the Bodhi Tree.

Upon climbing the steps and swinging open the heavy wooden door with the latch handle, you felt you were entering a temple of every spirituality ever conceived, with that characteristic dense atmosphere of serenity and concentrated inspiration one expects from sacred places. The music they played complemented the mood of discovery, and showcased new artists. Where else would someone first hear Silk Road by Kitaro or December by pianist composer George Winston.

At the height of its success Bodhi Tree had a hundred employees. They were making close to 2000 transactions a day with a cash flow of about five million a year. In 1994 they bought the storefront next door and put it to use as a meeting room, a lecture hall, and a center for book signings. For two decades Bodhi Tree published a Book Review they gave away. The ads never quite paid for the printing.

Even the best bookstores don’t last forever. As Borders and Barnes and Nobles started carrying larger inventories of spiritual books at discounted prices, Stan and Phil could see the Bodhi Tree’s days were numbered. But what drastically reduced the Bodhi Tree’s business was West Hollywood’s short sighted decision to bow to resident pressure and install permit only parking. A bad economy that made book buying a luxury exasperated the situation. The new instantly downloadable books in pdf and other digital formats sounded the death knell. These days one out of every two spiritual books bought in the U.S. is sold by Amazon.

If you spent fifty dollars the valet parking was free, a far cry from just finding a spot on the street, or being lucky to get one of those four spots between the branches, especially the one under the carport at the Used Branch, one of the most coveted parking spots in Los Angeles. I always felt the store liked me because of how often I got that spot

In 2006 the Bodhi Tree refreshed walls that hadn’t been painted since 1983. They cleared the clutter from the aisles. They produced a twenty minute segment on a radio show hosted by a well known psychic. Book reviews migrated to the Bodhi Tree website. They had first computerized the store in 1983, but now they were trying to catch up with online ordering. Phil became less involved in the store as he focused on raising his children. Stan remained hopeful, though he admitted he and his employees were talking about what would happen next. After the great peak in the Shirley Maclaine years the trajectory had gone steadily downhill, and the decline was accelerating.

When the Bodhi Tree began the surrounding area was a lower middle class neighborhood of butcher shops and gas stations, around the corner from the lumberyard. Now it is home to boutiques offering five hundred dollar handbags and ten thousand dollar bathtubs in what is called the West Hollywood Design District. To keep the Bodhi Tree open two extra months Stan and Phil had to fork out forty grand. The land and buildings that cost them $650,000 were assessed at over 2.7 million.

As soon as word got out that the store was going to be sold, customers returned from all around the world to walk the squeaky wooden floors one last time. I overheard conversations about the first time people had visited, the significant others they had met, the friend who bought a pamphlet about a diet that cured a disease, or the life changing book found by accident. I overheard one long time visitor describe how his own bookshelves and benches in his living room were almost identical copies of the ones at Bodhi Tree.

The store became slowly depleted as a series of progressively steeper discounts thinned the inventory. It felt like visiting an old relative who was wasting away, someone you could remember in all their wise and vibrant joy, now gaunt and disinterested. Stan and Phil themselves used the word transitioning about the end of their store, a term used in hospices. On my last visit I looked at the glorious stained glass Sri Yantra in the window and wondered if it was for sale; alas I had no window worthy to hang it in.

But there was much more to the Bodhi Tree than its wonderful stock, staff, and cats. Much more than the free tea of exotic varieties, and the old fashioned bathrooms, like bathrooms in a friend’s house, kept scrupulously clean, with a selection of incense at the ready in a ceramic incense holder.

Bodhi Tree was a place of serendipity. For many of us it was our first choice for gift buying. Not only was the selection marvelous, but the store had a strange way of presenting you with the right gift at the right time. If you were sensitive you didn’t have to ask for help. As you explored you would be drawn to that perfect gift. The book someone needed to read. The work of art they would cherish all their lives. The incense that became their signature scent. The oracle they would rely on. The candle that would light their way. The famous esoteric saying: “when the student is ready the teacher will appear” was never more true than at the Bodhi Tree. And this did not apply only to inanimate objects.

Some teachers you meet only once. Sometimes you never even learn their names. I never knew the name of my Zen master. He didn’t wear traditional robes. He haunted the Buddhist nook of the Bodhi Tree. He could be found only by serendipity. I overhead him speaking to another of his students. At the time I was deeply absorbed with technical aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, specifically drops and the other structures of the subtle bodies. When his student left I decided to approach him. I asked him if he could help me understand these Tibetan mysteries. He said, with slight irritation: “If there is no mind there are no drops.”

I met him several times. I tried to make appointments to see him but he refused. He would be there if I needed him. Our meetings always consisted of me posing detailed questions as he deflected them with koans and non sequiturs. He became short tempered with me, anger crept into his voice when he asked me why I was so fascinated with the finger I never looked at the moon. But he could also be gentle and witty in a way that would ring in my consciousness for weeks.

Wrestling his point of view became a constant practice for me. Then it happened. That is, nothing happened. There it all was, shining now, made up of everything. Instead of facing the world through the blinders of all my training I was simple, and everything around me beamed with the same simple consciousness, and I felt a great blissful love for all my fellow travelers in that particular moment of time. I went to see him for a last visit on a beautiful spring day.

He was there in the windowless corner of colorful Buddhist banners and carvings, bent over staring at a book’s full page reproduction of a painting of Daruma by Shunso. Two masters dubiously eyeing each other, one in brush strokes the other in a plaid shirt. He hadn’t seen me in awhile. Had probably given up on me. I thanked him for helping me realize a spring day. The serenity and warmth the words conveyed made him smile. We were no longer teacher and student. We were more like two children not too awestruck to giggle at the miracle and mystery that is being. A distraught looking young woman appeared to demand his attention. I left with a smile, knowing she was in good hands. Though I returned to the Bodhi Tree many times, I never saw him again.

Around the time of the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, Carl, a neighbor of the store who lived down the block, gave Bodhi Tree its very own bodhi tree (ficus religiosa), a sapling he had grown from a seed, in a simple pot. It stayed in the pot till it was six feet tall. During the great remodel of 1983 the bodhi tree of West Hollywood at long last got a place out back where it could dig its roots into the ground. It grew into a forty foot tall fig bearing unofficial landmark. But it’s gone now.

Through riots, earthquakes, wildfires, floods, serial killers, AIDS, the Bodhi Tree book store was the calm at the eye of the storm that is Los Angeles, a spiritual oasis in the desert of Hollywood. For anyone wanting to dismiss this city as a plastic place of shallow people Bodhi Tree could be a reminder that looks can be deceiving.

I went to Bodhi Tree just before it closed in December 2011 to buy one last gift. I doubted I would find anything. Only leftovers remained. I was buying a gift for some one I love deeply who had I been buying gifts for at Bodhi Tree since we were kids. The store had never failed me. And it didn’t this last time. I found a beautiful giclee print of Green Tara that had been there on the wall for the last seven years. Apparently all the other buyers had thought it was one of the gurus on the wall, which were not for sale. The Buddha of Enlightened Activity seemed to me to be the perfect parting gift from one of my favorite places, a lost shrine of American Metaphysical Religion.

It turned out that Bodhi Tree Bookstore was a mirage conspired by a couple of dropouts after all. It just took longer to disappear than anyone expected. This time the Library of Alexandria didn’t burn, it succumbed to the economy of scale and the search engine. In 2019 the corner the Bodhi Tree had occupied became the sleek glass home of the L.A. branch of PrettyLittleThing.com. A fashion retailer based in Manchester, UK, PLT is aimed at 14–24 year old females. The store is known for its unicorns and frankly pink decor.

An excerpt from America’s Occult Religions, a work in progress.

Ronnie Pontiac

Written by

A place for my writing about spiritual mysteries, American Metaphysical Religion, astrology, and related subjects. As a kid I was mentored by Manly P. Hall.

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