The founding owners of the Bodhi Tree Bookstore are dealing with the closure of their L.A. institution as only spiritualists can. "In our best Buddhist sense, we try to incorporate the idea that things always change," says Phil Thompson, who, along with Stan Madson, opened the Bodhi Tree 40 years ago. Through the years, their cozy Melrose Avenue shop became a nationally known, much beloved center for Buddhists, astrologers, psychics, yogis, swamis, acupuncturists, naturists and others seeking enlightenment.
Thompson and Madson decided to sell the property to a local business owner who leases space to several other nearby retailers. The store will be closed within a year, they say.
Making the choice was grueling. "This wasn't a weekend decision where we got out the I-Ching and tossed the coins," Thompson says.
The history of the Bodhi Tree is, in a sense, a history of L.A. The space was once a costume shop. Before that, it was a house. In those days, the hulking blue Pacific Design Center was a lumberyard, and the fancy furniture stores were gas stations, butcher shops and delicatessens.
In time, hotels and apartments replaced humble single-family bungalows. The 1994 Northridge earthquake scared the Bodhi Tree's next-door neighbors into moving away. Thompson and Madson bought the neighbor's property and added a Bodhi Tree annex.
Property values in the area have risen sharply over the years, leading to one of the many quintessentially Los Angeles geographic ironies: The spiritual center where you can learn to divest yourself of all materialism is currently located across the street from chichi boutique Kitson — a favorite of Hollywood ingénues — and a store hawking $10,000 bathtubs.
The neighborhood has indeed grown pricey. Thompson and Madson paid $650,000 for the two properties. The land and structure's current assessed value is $2.7 million (their real estate agent will not disclose the pending-sale price).
Thompson and Madson were aerospace engineers at Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica before starting the store in their 30s, abandoning a life of science for one of contemplation and meditation.
As aerospace engineers, he and Madson worked on weapons of mass destruction. "We basically figured out how to make them more destructive," Thompson says. "Missiles in space. That's what we did."
But the two men reached their limit at "the thermonuclear-war part," Madson says. "We said, 'We don't want to do that.' ''
Their bookstore filled a need, the men found. People were asking, "Who am I? What am I doing? Where is my life going? What are we really doing here?"
The two are now in their early 70s. They speak slowly. Madson is more reticent. Thompson has a slyer sense of humor.
Characteristics of the engineer persist in them, however, as they deconstruct the architecture of the Bodhi Tree's breakdown.
Their book sales have been declining for 15 years. The material they sell was once hard to find, giving the Bodhi Tree a strong presence in a niche market. But over the years, that material has grown in popularity, and gone mainstream. In a way, they have proselytized themselves out of business.
"Twenty years ago we felt like it was an expanding situation," Madson says. "We were concerned the store was getting too big. We had a staff of 100. Publishing was expanding. Spirituality was expanding. But what changed was that the market became widely dispersed."
"We're no longer the only place in half the country that has this material," Thompson adds.
Books on Wicca and Santeria and Native American shamanism used to be tough to find. Now every Borders and Barnes & Noble carries them. What can't be bought at a brick-and-mortar shop can undoubtedly be found online, inexpensively. Madson quotes a figure: 50 percent of all spiritual books sold in the U.S. are bought on Amazon.com.
Another blow came when international shipping rates rose. People who ordered from overseas defected to Amazon, which could save on rates by shipping from its various branches around the globe.
As if that weren't enough, the Bodhi Tree's parking situation deteriorated. When the area incorporated into West Hollywood, most of the surrounding streets became "permit only." Customers stopped coming literally overnight.
The men are hazy on exactly when that took place. "It's not one of the pleasant memories," Thompson says wryly. Eventually, the question of how much to grow the store became one of how long to hold on.
Letting go has been tough. The place has the feel of an old friend. The floors creak. The walls are permeated with the smell of incense. Two chubby bookstore cats roam the aisles and pause to be petted by customers who know each kitty by name. Thompson and Madson built most of the wood shelves and fixtures themselves.
On a recent day, Thompson walks the familiar aisles, noting the pictures of gurus on the walls. He tidies books in the UFOs and Inner Healing sections, passes an entire shelf of Wayne Dyer titles, and ends up in the backyard. "This is where we have the pagan rituals," he says, half-joking.
People have been asking if they have made any provision for the real Bodhi tree growing in the backyard parking lot. It was given to them by a neighbor 30 years ago as a potted seedling. It is now heavy with figs and deeply rooted in concrete, with a trunk too big to put your arms around. They don't know what will happen to it. Thompson figures the tree will be destroyed, chopped into firewood by the new owners.
Thompson prefers to believe that the bookstore has helped people who were lost, who were trying to discover who they are — whether that journey was through Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity or Islam. Both men worry about what will happen to the community once the store is gone. Where will people go for spiritual solace? "Perhaps a wealthy philosopher-entrepreneur will come in to buy the store and keep it going," Thompson suggests. "A sort of philosopher king. Or queen."
Madson believes that to continue, the store needs vitality, new energy and vision.
"We're old-school booksellers," he says. "We like that model. I'm not sure we're the ones who should lead it into the next stage."
Thompson's 20-something son had ideas for the property before it was sold: He wanted to turn it into a microbrewery and surf shop.
The young man said he would "keep some of the books around," Thompson mutters, shaking his head. "On the other hand, he does make pretty good beer."