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A Bodhi Tree Grows in Los Angeles

Since the dawn of the 20th century, before the first movie studio staked its claim in the Southern California sun, Los Angeles has been a haven for alternative spiritual practices. With the arrival of the Theosophical Society in Hollywood in the 1910s, a procession of Hindu gurus including Paramahansa Yogananda soon followed. Yogananda compared L.A. to Benares, India’s most holy city; before the “New Age Movement” was even a term, the City of Angels was already perceived as a spiritual mecca. One could even assert that the modern metaphysical movement—ancient wisdom teachings from around the globe, filtered through contemporary experience—was born among the palm trees, canyons and waves, and the shelves of a bookstore called Bodhi Tree on Melrose Avenue.

L.A.’s Spiritual Revolution

By the late ’60s, when Bodhi Tree’s founders, Stan Madson and Phil Thompson, were well on the path of meditation and macrobiotics that would lead them away from their “rocket scientist” jobs at Douglas Aircraft, Los Angeles had its own Zen Center as well as multiple branches of the Vedanta Society and the Self-Realization Fellowship. Spiritual teachers like Ram Dass and The Beatles’ guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi drew huge crowds when they came through town. Still, there was no local source for the spiritual texts that went along with the teachings, and when Madson, Thompson and a third Douglas Aircraft coworker, Dan Morris, were thinking about more peaceful career alternatives, the concept of a book and tea shop kept resonating. (Morris parted ways with Bodhi Tree in 1972, moving to the Northwest with his wife.)

History_1970-StoryFront
The Bodhi Tree Bookstore in 1970

Bodhi Tree opened its doors on July 10, 1970, at two o’clock in the afternoon, a date and time chosen by an astrologer for its auspicious qualities. If the books on everything from Eastern and Western philosophies and ancient-Earth practices to nutrition, psychology and environmentalism changed people’s lives, the free herbal tea (in addition to dozens of tea varieties for sale), wafts of incense and napping cats immediately established the shop as a place of sanctuary and community. Named for the fig tree under which Siddhartha the Buddha found enlightenment, the store’s first home was a two-room, 1,400-square-foot bungalow on a then-sleepy stretch of Melrose. (In religious iconography, a Bodhi tree is recognized by its heart-shaped leaves, and Bodhi trees are planted in close proximity to every Buddhist monastery.) In the early ’70s, a neighbor gave the book and teashop a Ficus religosa (Bodhi tree) that was grown from seed. This tree would eventually tower nearly three stories high.

A Meeting Place for All Seekers

From the beginning, seekers of all stripes walked through the door. Celebrated early customers included Linda Ronstadt and her boyfriend, Gov. Jerry Brown, who would become a serious student of Buddhism in the ’80s. Larry Geller, Elvis Presley’s hairdresser and spiritual advisor, was a regular, and a reading list confirms that The King consulted a number of theosophical texts in addition to Manly P. Hall’s Secret Teachings of All Ages and Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. Prince was also a regular customer, and it should come as no surprise that he favored the Egyptology section. But whoever you were, as astrologer and rock photographer Andee Nathanson tells it, a bond was created by simply sharing that space. “There was always a feeling that anybody in there was a kindred spirit,” says Nathanson, who lived within walking distance of the shop during its first two decades.

Of course, the most famous customer was Shirley MacLaine, whose 1983 memoir Out On A Limb brought international attention to Bodhi Tree with her tale of a fateful encounter with a book that altered the course of her life. Sales ballooned in the shop, and subjects like past lives and astral channeling became common enough for water-cooler chitchat. Madson calls this “The Shirley MacLaine Influence,” and he notes that it reverberated throughout the entire publishing industry, which had discovered an untapped market. Bodhi Tree expanded, adding an annex for used books and a dedicated event space that hosted readings and talks by a new generation of spiritual superstars, such as Deepak Chopra and Marianne Williamson. (Chopra recently revealed that he once brought Michael Jackson to the store in disguise, and the two spent hours perusing the shelves.)

Many of today’s leading metaphysical hubs credit Bodhi Tree with providing early inspiration. Martin Anguiano, owner of the crystal shop Spellbound Sky in nearby Silver Lake, remembers taking the bus to the store as a teenager. “All my books on magic, the occult, spirituality, came from there. My first tarot deck, my first pendulum, my meditation mat that I use to this day, I got there,” he says.

In 1990, the employee roster peaked at 99, and Madson adds that requests for advice from wannabe Bodhi Tree booksellers became so common that a photocopied guide was created, which was titled How to Open a Metaphysical Bookstore. A couple of years later, the quarterly Bodhi Tree Book Review began publication, offering a wealth of information, from interviews with people such as renowned religious scholar Huston Smith and psychedelic philosopher Terence McKenna to reviews of thousands of key sacred texts, all for free.

Changing Times

In spite of the bookstore’s contributions to the community and devotion of its customers, the Bodhi business model was suffering the same fate as many other independent booksellers at the turn of the millennium.

Around that time, Jasmine Fayed, a lifelong student of metaphysics and fashion entrepreneur whose designs were influenced by the worlds of myth and magical lore, wandered in. “I was instantly struck by the sense of wonder and comfort I felt,” the London-born Fayed says. “It was enchanting, an uncanny, time-slowing vortex. Plus, it was one of the closest places around to a real-life Hogwarts!”

Whenever she was in L.A., Fayed would stop in, getting regular readings from the shop’s numerologist, Josh Siegel. “It’s important to dedicate time for introspection and self-study,” she notes. “It’s so easy to get distracted, lost in the world at the expense of deepening your connection to yourself. Bodhi Tree is the antidote to that, giving you permission to stop a minute, walk the endless fascinating aisles of life-enriching wisdom, and follow the arrow of your particular interest that points inward.”

Bodhi Tree’s New Beginning

And so, when Madson and Thompson decided to find a new caretaker of their beloved Bodhi Tree in 2011, Siegel called Fayed to ask if she knew of anyone who might be interested in buying the business. “I thought, I really hope someone keeps it alive,” she recalls. A year later, following a series of healing crises that led her to reevaluate her career and personal path, Fayed chose to honor that role. Today, she embraces her calling as successor and guardian of Bodhi Tree’s re-creation.

As Fayed sees it, the site will be the rich, diverse resource for deeper inquiry that Bodhi Tree has always been—now with a global reach. She intends to protect the store’s original essence while bringing a refined sensibility that both reveres the beauty of ancient libraries and celebrates L.A.’s creative and spiritual heritage. She believes internal self-discovery is at the heart of a peaceful external existence, and intends Bodhi Tree to be the conduit to help nurture that connection. Bodhi Tree’s expanded offerings will include archival content, workshops, original stories, artisanal goods, podcasts and partnerships with values-aligned creative ventures and, above all, books. “It will be a hive of ‘creativity furthering consciousness,’” as she sees it, a haven for active exploration and contemplative reflection.

Customers will experience a similar sense of discovery and community as they did in the brick-and-mortar bookstore, thanks to sophisticated browsing and social-media technologies. Almost half a century later, the vision that was germinated in a little bungalow on Melrose Avenue is continuing to be cultivated for inspiration seekers everywhere, offering a dependable shelter for life’s reality checks and an illuminated path for consciousness awakening.

About the author

Steffie Nelson is an L.A.-based style and culture writer who contributes to The New York Times, Los Angeles Magazine, L.A. Review of Books, W Magazine and many other publications. Currently, she’s penning a book about the historic L.A. stained glass company Judson Studios and working on Cosmic City, the story of esoteric Los Angeles.

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