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Ronnie Pontiac

Prayer Wheel for the Bodhi Tree

Los Angeles is infamous for surrendering our architectural treasures to developers, and for how quickly we lose the centers of our creative communities.  In Boston you can still eat corn bread and chowder at the place Benjamin Franklin liked.  But L.A. is one long recitation of what you missed.

You should have been there.  When the artists of Ferus Gallery in their metaphorical pick up trucks ran down the art establishment.  When hippies argued about Nietzsche on the bus benches of Sunset.  When Laurel Canyon rang with the sounds of many bands about to be famous, as naked hippie girls from the valley and the beaches strolled in smiling, offering on silver trays joints, coke, ludes and herbal tea.  When the Santa Monica Freeway was new you could take your hot rod on it and let her rip.  The cops would sit back and enjoy the show, then pull you over just to admire what you had under the hood.

You should have been there when the Crue rocked the Santa Monica Civic while the whole record industry in love with new wave and disco frowned and folded their arms too smug to realize metal was about to take over the world.  You should have been there when Beck soloed on a leaf blower at Spaceland.  You certainly should have been there when Nirvana played the Jabberjaw and Dave asked for anyone to please pass a joint.  You should have been there when King T rapped “Played Like a Piano” in a studio across a river of alcohol and a cloud of chronic.  You should have been there when the Black Panthers supported the riot grrrl and peace punk show at Koo’s Cafe in Santa Ana.

And that’s just a fraction of the musical you should have been theres of Los Angeles.  I was born here so I’ve been hearing these stories all my life.  The great lost shops of Los Angeles is a worthy collection of stories.  For example, Patty’s African Shop was just down the block from the Bodhi Tree book store.  A classic stucco vaguely Spanish West Hollywood house with a porch converted into the most extraordinary almost museum of all things African.  Every room was crammed with carvings, masks, and sculptures, some of them towering over the infrequent shoppers.

Pictures of Patty in Africa with all her friends were on the walls and pinned to the counters.  Huge hornbill carvings in that luscious dark African wood, guardian birds, they dominated the entrance.  Something as amazing as a Bakuba kingmaker mask could easily be missed among all the treasures.  Bins of beautiful ancient and current beads brought to mind the outdoor markets of Africa.  Patty herself, a gray stump, not very nice to customers, knew exactly where everything came from and what it meant and what it was used for.  The hardcore parolees who watched the store for her would recommend the right charm for your trouble if you were respectful.

You should have been there when The Sorcerer’s Shop with its dark, dank, muffled pagan atmosphere of nature religion at its finest offered exquisite mixed oils like the Irresistible Drops made famous by Darryl Hannah.  Shop owner Babetta was so glamorous she gave the place a Playboy After Dark vibe.  Her mustached warlock partner looked like he had just stepped out of the Dunwich Horror.  Did you visit when the owl Solomon was still alive, or after he was stuffed, or when his stuffing started to molt?

Babetta in the Sorceror’s Shop

Then there was Uba’s House of Fashion where the transvestites, dominatrixes, and other fetishists who found The Pleasure Chest too vanilla could go to get the accoutrements of their trades.  A good place to get custom leather.  Blackie Lawless wasn’t the only future rock star who went to Uba for that fashion advice that made the New York Dolls seem modest.  No matter how peculiar your fetish once you visited Uba’s you knew you were not alone.  You should have been there, someone will say, and tell you a wonderful, disturbing, improbable story.

I’ve had a few you should have been there moments myself.  You should have been there when Manly P. Hall lectured on Sunday mornings delivering fascinating facts and eloquent advice in an improvisation of detailed wit and wisdom as beautifully composed as the best jazz.  You should have been there when Vince bitched about the fans’ lack of enthusiasm during the filming of the video for “Kickstart My Heart” when the audience exhausted from waiting in the sun all day outside the Whiskey chanted bullshit at the Crue until they fled the stage.  The music press, even the so called independents, never touched that story.  You should have been there when Team Dresch played their first gig at a lesbian bar, at Palms in West Hollywood; most of the regulars didn’t like them, much preferring acoustic guitars, but the band was a hurricane of joy for their tiny but thrilled audience of fellow musicians.

You should have been there when Al Green played the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip passing out roses just as 1999 ended.  You should have been there when a protesting Courtney Love was carried off the stage horizontally like a 2×4 by two roadies, allowing Jane’s Addiction to perform a collective healing the Halloween after 9/11. The press didn’t write about that either.  You should have been there when the Invisible Scratch Pickles or DJ Spooky made turntables raise the ancestors at the Masonic Hall on Highland.   I got to play that gig when the Black Panthers arrived to support riot grrrls and peace punks at Koo’s Cafe.  Dreamer, a Panther rapper, bought my band’s cassette demo even though it was lime green and decorated with glitter stickers.

Most of those you should have been theres involve specific people.  As for you should have been there places, the Bodhi Tree book store towers above all the others, even above Tower Records during the hair metal days, not only a place where you could find almost any kind of music you craved, but a fashion and hair display as competitive as any pedigreed dog show.

The white Bodhi Tree flag flapped in the breeze like a Tibetan wind horse or the unfurled banner of the King of Gondor.  How many homes have known the ubiquitous somehow comforting Bodhi Tree bookmarks with the tree logo and slogan: Books to Illuminate the Heart and Mind?

You should have been there when the Bodhi Tree was a just a couple of rooms, with a bunch of hippies working and shopping there.  Only a few pictures of gurus on the wall then.  You should have been there when the punk rockers began arriving mostly because the Bodhi Tree was the place to find poetry by William Burroughs, and Bukowski, unless you drove way over to the huge hippie haven of Papa Bach’s bookstore across the street from the Nuart Theater, on that side of Sepulveda.

How many Bodhi Tree cats did you know?  Did you know them well enough for them to give you a head bump?  Did you know the cat who liked to curl up next to the shelves of books on witchcraft?  You should have.  One by one their pictures went up on the wall as their bodies were buried under the big fig tree like the one Buddha gazed at for so long.

Lucia, the last reigning cat of the Bodhi Tree

Stan and Phil were a couple of rocket scientists, no really, well, aerospace engineers to be more exact.  They worked on WMDs figuring out how to hurl more destructive destruction with missiles from space.  They weren’t the only young engineers who wanted to do something more positive with their lives at the end of the sixties, but they are among the few who actually did.

Stan and Phil presided over the proceedings with the keenly aware eyes 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, hell, 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 building 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.

The melancholic melodrama that was Love Story, and George C. Scott chewing up the scenery making a mockery of the mincing but nevertheless formidable Patton, were blockbuster movies.  MASH was a hit movie before it became a TV show.  The merchandising trends triggered by Woodstock showed future protectors of the status quo how to not only co-opt but also how to profit from the counterculture.

On July 10 1970 the Bodhi Tree opened.  Astrologers will note the Sun conjunct Mercury conjunct Mars in Cancer square Jupiter in Libra, the chart of a home away from home so successful it avoids all whiff of scandal or any serious accident, as if blessed.  The major challenges almost always having to do with too much success not too little.

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.  Brian Jones had died the summer before.  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, would rule the airwaves.  People were turning inward in search of better 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.

You should have been there in 1978 when the small bookcase of used books was replaced by a stucco cottage next door that became the used book branch.  It had a few shelves on the porch outside the old wooden door offering free books at all hours. You should have breathed in the aromatic delights of its herb room, where shelves full of big glass jars with a silver scoop in each offered special teas, the house yogi blend was particularly good, rare and common simple herbs, very popular catnip, of course, and even, back when it was legal, the healing wonder of comfrey, both root and leaf.  Walking around the corner you would pass the discounted dinged merchandise table and cash register on your left, and the tall double shelves of collectible books on your right, as you approached the bench where heaping boxes of books were sold as soon as they could be priced.  And the used cookbooks were often filled with cut out recipes, brown newspaper articles, and sometimes useful notes.

You should have been there when the manager of the used branch visited Tibet returning glowing and full of stories; almost everyone working there seemed to have pilgrimaged to India at least once.  If they liked you they’d call you when they knew they were getting a box of treasures which they would sell you at impressively fair prices.  Books that might cost you five hundred dollars each today, when everyone checks online to establish their inflated prices, were easily affordable, and available for layaway.  Great book collections came from that store.

The used branch had a spiritual mission to get the right books in the right hands.  Once they got used to your taste they would make good suggestions to further your explorations.  You could be sure that anyone who worked there would at some point involve you in a fascinating conversation about anything from the way thunderstorms clear the ether to the latest herbal remedy from the far east.  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.

In 1983 Shirley MacLaine took the New Age underground mainstream when she published the autobiographical Out on a Limb where she wrote that a book destined to change her life mysteriously dropped into her hands at the Bodhi Tree.  In1987 Out on a Limb was adapted for television making an even bigger splash.  The Bodhi Tree was world famous.  Larry Geller went there to buy books for Elvis.  Once and future governor Jerry Brown spent weekend hours intently reading.  Donovan played a song when he dropped by.  Timothy Leary popped in one October day to gleefully sign Happy Halloween in all the copies of his books.

The Bodhi Tree new branch became a cornucopia of imported and domestic handcrafted art, wonderful gift cards, crystals, jewelry, candles, chimes, dream catchers, statues, oils, incenses, a great glass case of every possible deck of tarot cards.  Obscure magazines on spiritual topics from all over the world filled many 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.

The Bodhi Tree didn’t judge 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.  Girls had to beware of creeps who hit on them by reading their palms or or the inevitable guess your sign game.  But that was part of the fun.

The carefully chosen wisdom and spiritual books and art were so abundant you felt you were entering a temple of every spirituality that was ever written about, with that characteristic dense atmosphere of serenity and concentrated inspiration one expects from sacred places.  The music they had playing complemented the mood of discovery, and showcased new artists, often first listens of musicians who became famous like synth pioneer Kitaro or 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.

But nothing lasts forever.  As Borders and Barnes and Nobles started carrying larger inventories of spiritual books, 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 makes book buying a luxury, and the new digital format instantly downloadable for pennies on the dollar didn’t help.  Besides, these days one out of every two spiritual books bought in the U.S. is sold by Amazon.

Pulling up to have your car parked for you by a free if you spend fifty dollars valet was 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, one of the most coveted parking spots in Los Angeles on a hot summer day.  I always felt the store liked me because of how often I scored that spot.

What was a lower middle class neighborhood of butcher shops and gas stations around the corner from the lumberyard is now home to boutiques offering five hundred dollar handbags and ten thousand dollar bathtubs.  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 today are assessed at 2.7 million.

The Bodhi Tree never really established a comprehensive online presence, but that was a conscious decision, since Stan and Phil had installed their first computer and software way back in 1983.  It wouldn’t be surprising if they weren’t quite comfortable with the lack of community that masquerades as community in the virtual world.

As soon as word got out that the store was going to be sold the many regulars, a few for over forty years, returned to walk there one last time.  Conversations could be overheard about the first time people had visited, the significant other they met, the friend who bought a pamphlet about a diet that cured their serious disease, or the life changing book they found.  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 you knew was dying, 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 preferred by hospice professionals.  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 and staff, including the cats.  Much more than the free tea of exotic varieties, and the old fashioned bathrooms, like bathrooms in a comfortable house not a store, always 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 fitting 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 most 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.  Some teachers you never even learn their name.  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.  I had not yet made the connection between the yogic bindu and drops.  When his student left I decided to approach him.  I asked him if he could help me understand these Tibetan mysteries.  He said: 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 and he deflecting them with koans and non sequiturs.  He became short tempered with me, irritation 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 tragic yet blissful love for all my fellow travelers in this 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 mostly 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 and I left smiling knowing she was in good hands.  Though I returned to the Bodhi Tree often, I never saw him again.

Words are dangerous, slippery, magnetic, filled with prejudices.  A word can be a violent tool in the wrong hands, like a gun or a knife.  Words tell only a fraction of the miracle and mystery.  Words more often confuse and cause conflict.  The emotional charges of words can differ so greatly between cultures and individuals that even when the same definition is held, the real meaning can be quite opposite.  I have a friend who is an African American martial arts master.  He tells me African Americans find it almost impossible to use the word master even when it is a term of respect and honor.  They would not address him as master.

What my zen teacher taught me was to trust a deeper awareness of being.  Away from words we listen more deeply.  Words are the past and the future intruding on the present.  People have struggled to name and describe this awakening.  Bucke called it cosmic consciousness.  Generations of metaphysicians talked about the Higher Self, over-self, or used the sanskrit word atman.  Suchness. Tathata.  Thusness.  zen.  All emphasize that the mystery is far greater than a brain anchored consciousness can conceive, at least as currently under utilized by inhabitants of human bodies.  But what is brain when there is no mind?

Around the time of the U.S. Bicentennial, a neighbor named Carl 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 some ground out back to dig its roots into.  The tree is a forty foot tall fig bearing landmark now.   No one knows whether the new owners will cut it down.

Through riots, earthquakes, wildfires, floods, serial killers, police brutality 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 the Bodhi Tree was a reminder that looks can be deceiving.

The latest news is that the Bodhi Tree, phoenix like, will rise again at a new larger location complete with a cafe.  I will visit and give it every chance to win me, but even if it finds its stride and continues the grand tradition, it won’t be the original Bodhi Tree book store because it can’t be.

I’m going to miss visiting the last reigning feline of the Bodhi Tree, 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.  Lucia lives with Neisha now.  Neisha wasn’t just the all knowing office manager, she’s a witness to 33 years of Bodhi Tree history.  I hope she fancies herself a bit of an historian right now, Stanley and Phillip, too.  Meet the four most recognized of the Bodhi Tree cat pantheon here.

I went to the 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 on the wall that had been there 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 seems to me to be the perfect parting gift from one of my favorite places, my sanctuary, the Bodhi Tree book store, a lost shrine of American Metaphysical Religion.  You should have been there.

Photo by Gendy Alimurung

Feel free to leave your stories about the Bodhi Tree in the comment section below.

Article Written by Ronnie Pontiac

Newtopia staff writer RONNIE PONTIAC is a founding member and primary guitarist of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War, Exile Nation, and the award winning animated short Cohen on the Bridge.  He associate produced The Gits documentary, and was art editor, then poet in residence for Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation . He’s a published author of works on obscure topics such as ancient Greek religion and the history of alchemy. Follow him on Twitter @AmerMysteries.


9 thoughts on “Prayer Wheel for the Bodhi Tree

  1. Awesome article. I will always have fond memories of the Bodhi Tree.

    Posted by JJ | February 16, 2012, 1:13 pm
  2. I have such fond memories of the Bodhi Tree, and miss it dearly! My most precious memories have to do with the wonderful people I met there — both the staff, who were always so caring and attentive, and those who came to events or to shop. I felt deeply honored to have been able to do an author’s event at Bodhi Tree in April 2010 at a time when many of us hoped Bodhi Tree could someone find a way to continue on. I keep hoping that somehow it may be reborn again in a new incarnation.

    Me at Bodhi Tree, April 2010

    Posted by Cynthia Sue Larson | February 16, 2012, 2:58 pm
  3. That was wonderful, Ronnie! Wish I had been there. 🙂

    Posted by Greta B | February 19, 2012, 4:29 pm
  4. Thanks, Ronnie, for a wonderful and beautifully written article. I WAS there! I remember going there with my then girlfriend within three weeks after it originally opened in 1970. The picture of the old building looks exactly like I recollect it. I visited there many times through the years, with other girlfriends and alone. I sold many a book at the used store when in need of some extra cash. They always offered more than fair money. And, I bought many a book both there and at the main building. I got one of those parking spaces you mention quite a bit. Best time seemed to be midweek, 10am to noon.

    You hit it perfectly, the Bodhi Tree never failed to revivify one’s spirit in one way or another. It will be deeply missed by many.

    But, you failed to mention that the Bodhi Tree will reopen some time in 2012 at another location under new owners. I’m on the mailing list to notified and I hope you write an article celebrating the reopening!

    Posted by Michael Williams | February 20, 2012, 1:39 pm
  5. what a tragedy that this landmark is gone the way of all bookstores!

    Posted by Ken Atchity | September 30, 2012, 2:32 pm
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  1. Pingback: Roots of American Metaphysical Religion #2: The Other Betty White: A True Story of Love Beyond Death « Newtopia Magazine - April 17, 2012

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