Tucked in among pixelated orphan sheep and “Osama bin Laden execution video” viruses there it was on Facebook: “Clearly poised to fill in the gap that will be left when the legendary Bodhi Tree Bookstore on Melrose closes its doors in the Fall of 2011.”
My gaze moved on, paused, went back. Wait, what? I’d already forgotten the name of whatever upstart thought to supplant an ancient oak with a bonsai sapling. The Bodhi Tree is closing?
It isn’t gone yet, but it will be soon. After forty years, age and digital media taking their toll, the owners are ready to retire. The property has been sold and though they are seeking likeminded souls to spirit away to a new home an inventory spanning ages and continents of metaphysical seeking and losing and finding, how could the genius loci be the same? It isn’t gone quite yet but its going is a certainty, and I’ve already begun a quiet mourning.
The drive from my Long Beach home to the Bodhi Tree always felt like a small pilgrimage, the hours perusing the stacks a brief retreat. And it was acceptable – expected even – to spend hours with the books. Serene music, subtle incense. Herb tea steeping on a table and free for the taking. Worn chairs tucked into nooks among the narrow aisles. And although popularity led to expansion the store’s heart still beat in an early twentieth century California bungalow whose arched plaster doorways, hardwood floors and simple wood shelving sustained the pleasant illusion of homeowners sharing their much-loved library with any wandering pilgrim who found their ever open door
I never went to the Bodhi Tree alone. It felt a supremely selfish act not to share a haven with friends in need of it. And though I never consciously imposed a structure the place inspired ritual of its own. Whatever conversations occupied us on the drive and in the hunt for parking – and it was an auspicious day indeed if one of the bookstore’s three off street stalls stood empty – inevitably drifted away to silence as soon as we crossed the threshold. And then we drifted away from each other as well, answering the still, small voices of whatever beckoned to us that day.
Our paths crossed in our wanderings but we seldom spoke. A smile perhaps, a nod, an open book held up spine out to signal treasure found. And so it was with most of the patrons. Some circumambulated the entire space with the solemnity of a sacred labyrinth walker, astrology to Plato to Zoroastrianism. Others pooled in local eddies, Hindu or Judaic or Pagan. Some found a special jewel and curled up with it for hours, and around those fortunate individuals others murmured softly if they felt the need to talk at all.
Occasionally a kind of interloper appeared. Someone gaping from the doorway at the sea of books before turning on an uneasy heel in search of Melrose’s more stylish fare. Others stalking further in, rattling wind chimes and pretending to snort incense as if to defy the prevailing mood and then, belatedly realizing the mood took no notice of them, clattering back out leaving the echo of brittle laughter to fade into the quiet. It was not too much a flight of fancy to think the store itself eased them on their way, murmuring like a kindly aged aunt, “Wouldn’t you rather play outside, child?” Protecting the community of kindred spirits nestled within the special atmosphere of its walls.
That community and that atmosphere, I expect, is what kept the Bodhi Tree going long past the time when many independent booksellers’ livelihoods shattered before the seiches of Barnes and Noble and then Amazon. For if the city was congestion and noise and busy people bustling about their busy lives the Bodhi Tree was respite from all of these things. A place to be mindful, meditative, at peace.
The very seeds of spiritual practice planted there took me away from Los Angeles as I sought a quieter rhythm of days than metropolis provides. But every so often I would open a book and see on the flyleaf in a younger hand Bodhi Tree Bookstore, West Hollywood, California. I would think I should make the pilgrimage again, three hours longer now. Pour a cup of tea. Visit Alexandra David-Neel, D.T. Suzuki, the Lotus Sutra in the home where I first met them. Breathe in the calming scent of old wood and aging tomes.
But always something stopped me. No time. Too far. Fear that it had changed, or I had. Better to keep the memory pristine rather than risk tarnishing it with a disappointing visit. And it’s still there, I told myself, being what I loved without me needing to bear witness.
Now in a few short months that will no longer be true, but I feel no impulse to rush down for one last time. For contemplating its closing, riffling through those volumes in my own library that read Bodhi Tree Bookstore, I realize now that I carried away its heart within my heart when I left. And while it saddens me to think of the delight of discovery lost to others seeking quiet, seeking respite, merely seeking, for myself the memory and the books on my shelves will, perhaps, be enough.