Today I went to one of those franchise haircut places where the name is an alliteration, where my cutter did an expert job in rendering the fens and marshes of my uncontrollable hair into minute subparticles easily subject to the comb. She explained to me about how her son's rich harvest the prior season meant her family would be feasting on grilled deer-burgers as soon as she got off work. Then I went to the mall, to beg the indulgence of the folks at LensCrafters, as I have managed to once again mistreat my glasses, causing one lens to offer to pop out at the slightest provocation. After a long delay, during which much tweaking and miniature screwdrivering and aerosol cleanser spraying occurred, the kind sales representative advised me that mine was indeed a difficult case, but that the patient, i.e., my spectacles, had narrowly been resuscitated from the brink of death.
I walked out to the mall parking lot, where the heat and humidity had sharply intensified since I went into the mall. I had forgotten to pay any attention to where I parked, and, as it happened, I came out the wrong exit anyway. The resulting half an hour hike in the mall parking lot, where I watched grackles and scissortail flycatchers grappling with food scraps, made for an aerobic but not altogether satisfying exercise interlude. Suddenly, I had a fleeting wish I was in southern California. I wished I was in the Bodhi Tree bookstore.
I first visited Los Angeles in 1987, on a work assignment. At the time I visited, I did not know that within a matter of weeks, I would be spending nearly half my time there. I found it fascinating. One thing that has always struck me about Los Angeles, though, is that Myth of the Mystical California. I often longed to find the California of winding lanes and enshrouding mists. I sought the streets of Los Angeles in vain for a California with quietly ringing gongs and the slight trace of incense. So much of the California I saw in Los Angeles was neglected inner cities and fading suburbs, burger stands and aggressive motorists. I wished to find that California which has served as a magnet for the heart and soul, cinematic, religious, quirky, and entirely serene. In short, I wished to find that place I ultimately did find, the Bodhi Tree Bookstore.
Melrose Boulevard runs through Hollywood and West Hollywood.
It has ethnic restaurants, cool clothes boutiques, a great little store comprised entirely of wind-up toys, places of high fashion, places of low fashion, and nightclubs in varying degrees of "cool". Melrose was once bohemian, then it was trendy, then it was "over" and now it is merely a set of eclectic ideas and marketing devices, in search of a label. Melrose can be fast, trendy, cool vintage, or "hip". It can be yesterday, or tomorrow.
Near the west end of Melrose, though, not far from the "blue whale" building which houses the California Design Center, a metaphysical bookstore beacons guests to enter the wooden doorway by the blue circular yin/yangish window.
When one walks into the Bodhi Tree, one is instantly greeted by the incense. Not grocery store incense, certainly not cheap "head shop" incense, but real incense, the kind of incense which lacks an aftertaste, which illuminates an incense censer like satori enlightens a being. Although the store is reasonably sized, the passage ways are all small, to make room for more books and displays. One is greeted by magazines which span many faiths and ideas, by Buddhas and prayer gongs under glass and by the sort of cards with good pictures and no jingles that one might actually want to send, rather than the usual Hallmark mysticism that tempts one to buy garish cartoon "happy birthday, Grandfather" cards, and then scratch out the text to make an "altered card" of sorts. The place is usually filled with music, either world music or synthesizers. In my mind, the music is usually an alien flute, playing a disorganized but utterly charming melody.
The real draw to the Bodhi Tree bookstore, though, is its collection of books. Nearly every faith and every skepticism is collected in the store, organized by belief system. Although many of the books are new age or metaphysical, the bulk of the available inventory actually derives from the world religions and their major offshoots. American alternative faiths also get a strong emphasis in the inventory. The Hindu books include many of those little volumes bound on inexpensive paper in India.
The various occult works include not only the standard reference, but often an obscure variant. Works of psychology, works of UFOology, and works of existentialism are all at home in the Bodhi Tree. No faith is too odd, too conventional or too isolated for the store.
Many of the customers seem to exist only in the bookstore itself. Here and there are men and women who look like New Age priests and priestesses--long, herbal essence hairstyles, rosy croix medallions, figures apparently caressed by godlings (or Gold's Gym). Heels and sandals tap, tap, tap, along the wooden floors, as illuminati concentrate on the inventory. In the chairs placed conveniently about the store, earnest men and women of rather less
"glamorous" stripe focus intently on arcanities from a hundred faiths, hoping to absorb as much wisdom as the Bodhi Tree has to share. No words are spoken--the music and the incense and the books are enough communication for everyone. Even the staff, though always courteous, does not maintain that "bookish" banter which can become common on "intelligent" bookstores. Nobody needs to impress. Everybody needs a little grace.
Are a few people there for an ambience, the Salvation of Incense? Undoubtedly. Is there more than a bit of marketing to the seeker, the complacently "spiritual", and the devotee of the "meaningful experience"? Certainly. But let's not dwell on the fact that the temple is sometimes also a marketplace. Let's dwell on dreams. We watched the TNT movie of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon this week on video. In that film, the mystic island of Avalon appears from the mists, helping people connect with the Old Religion. I do not have any great insight into the Old Religion, nor into Avalon. I never bought much from the wiccan or Arthurian legend sections of the store.
But I have seen the mists part from time to time which shroud from me that California which I often long to see. Those mists have departed in remote mountain passes, and in fog-drenched Topanga Canyon restaurants. But only one place reliably lets me cross from the shores of the Cathedral of McDonald's and the long, dusty road of the descendants of Route 66. That mystic opening in the clouds which border our particular hell arise in the Bodhi Tree bookstore, and as I wandered in the dungeon of my mall parking lot, I longed, just for a moment, for the smell of its incense and the sight of its books. In all likelihood, I will never live in California again. I was not really for California born. But I will always live in the Bodhi Tree bookstore, if it will have me, and in some ways all my wanderings are in search of quiet music, good books, and that sense of peaceful escape.