In the 60s, Los Angeles was a mecca for alternative religions and new age thinking. Spiritual teachers like Ram Dass and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (the Beatles’ guru) attracted crowds while Hindu guru Paramahansa Yogananda likened L.A. to Benares, India’s holiest city. Riding this spiritual wave was a small new age bookstore in West Hollywood called the Bodhi Tree.
The Bodhi Tree offered titles on religion, spirituality, philosophy and metaphysics. Shirley MacLaine credited the Bodhi Tree in her 1983 biography Out on a Limb for inspiring a midlife spiritual quest. She wrote, “Making that simple, lazy afternoon decision to visit an unusual bookstore in West Hollywood was one of the most important decisions of my life.”
Stan Madson and Phil Thompson were aerospace engineers for Northrup Grumman helping build missiles and bombs for the Vietnam War. A fellow engineer, Bernie Glassman, became a Zen roshi and began discussing Buddhism at work. Madson and Thompson took up meditation and grew interested in eastern religion. Conflicted about their role in the military industrial complex, they quit their jobs, pooled their savings and decided to build a bookstore that would become an “American Library of Alexandria.”
Madson and Thompson leased a two-bedroom 1,400-square foot house on Melrose Avenue among the antique stores and suburban homes. They purchased 2,000 books on the world’s wisdom traditions. They named the store after the tree under which the Buddha sat in meditation until attaining enlightenment. On July 10, 1970 at two o’clock in the afternoon, a time chosen by an astrologer, the Bodhi Tree Bookstore opened it’s doors. It quickly became a magnet for spiritual seekers and teachers around Los Angeles.
Customers purchased books by authors such as Carlos Castaneda, Alan Watts and Richard Bach. The store offered sections on astrology, Buddhism, herbal remedies, meditation, vegetarianism and yoga. They sold candles, crystals, incense and tarot cards. Visitors drank free herbal tea while new age music cascaded through the speakers. People were encouraged to linger for hours as if in a library.
Early celebrity patrons included Linda Ronstadt and Governor Jerry Brown who became a student of Buddhism. Larry Geller, hairdresser for Elvis Presley, purchased Kahlil Gibran’s…