Thursday, April 24, 2008

Interview with James “Surendra” Conti, Manager of East West Bookstore

Located at the heart of Silicon Valley in Mountain View, California, East West is a big and beautiful space full of books, and with a quiet & peaceful atmosphere. It is one of the biggest, if not The biggest spiritual/metaphysical bookstores in the United States, and it is also one of the first bookstores that joined our program, letting it's customer plant a tree for every book they buy.

I met James “Surendra” Conti, the store's manager, for a chat at the huge back room of the store. It doubles as inventory space by day, and a beautiful workshops and event space by night.

This interview begins a series of articles about the many wonderful bookstores and booksellers around the country, which we have the pleasure of working with.

Q: So tell me a bit about East West?

A: East West is a metaphysical bookstore. It has been in business since 1980, and has moved to this location in 1996. We've been previously in El Camino Real, and since moving here expanded, so now, while books are still the biggest category of products, they provide only 30% of our business. Still it's way more than any other single category. It's hard to be a bookstore these days, just with books.

Q: What are the other 70%?

A: We have crystals, cards, candles, music, videos, yoga and meditation supplies, jewelry, feng-shui, journals, and a lot of children things. Beauty is important to us. We look for things that work together in term of who we are. Metaphysical, spiritual. Self-help is also a big part of that.

Q: What's a “Metaphysical” bookstore?

A: We're owned by a church. It's The Ananda Church of Self Realization, and it's a synthesis of east and west. It was founded by Swami Kryiananda, who is a direct disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda. There is a lot of eastern, as well as western in it, hence the name “East West”. We support all spiritual paths, and our mission is to guide people to whatever path they resonate with, rather than proselytize for our organization. Having said that, you may also notice that at the front of the store there is a bust of Yogananda, a book section dedicated to him, as well as to Kryianada, and a section about the teaching of our various sages and saints of India in particular. We also have a huge Buddhist section, and really all spiritual paths are represented here. Not only on the bookshelf, but also in the term of the programs we present.

We are more than a bookstore, we are a resource place for a community; a gathering place. People come here for many reasons, as a resource or for enlightening ideas, or for sharing it with others. That is really our purpose more than anything else.

As for future plans, we intend to be here, no matter what happens to the book business, and continue to have available for people the teachings that they are looking for.

Q: Are you part of the Ananda Church?

A: Yes, I am. It's a synthesis of Yoga and Christianity. There are five gurus, or masters, if you will. The story is that Jesus appeared to Babaji 400 years ago, and essentially commissioned him to bring the teachings of Kryia Yoga back into the world; and so the lineage started. Yogananda came to the west in 1920. He is the first Indian master who actually made his home in united states, until he passed away in 1952. He established the self-realization fellowship. Those teachings are are a union of all religions.

Q: And how did you get here to this bookstore?

A: My wife, who is a co-manager here, and I were living in Seattle, and were asked to come here to manage the store after the dot com bust of 2001. The store fell on some hard times, in terms of having too much inventory than was moving quickly. People lost their jobs here and were spending much less money. And to some extent there is a similar downward trend right now that is having an effect on the store, but not nearly as marked as in that time. The store needed new management to pull it out of that more difficult period.

I had a medical supplies business, so I had some of the required skills, but had no retail experience at the time. Nor did my wife. We had a good staff in place and they essentially trained us.

Q: Can you tell me a bit about the events in the store?

A: Author events, but not only. We have teachers, psychic readings, workshop leaders, and so on. We tend to have an event almost every evening, and it is a big part of our community appeal.

Q: What do people like most about the store?

A: The environment. For a lot of people this is almost their church. We have a fountain where they come to meditate. We do have meditation sessions throughout the week. It is a very soothing space to be, especially given the hectic pace in this Silicon Valley. People come and tell me that. We also have a lot of things that people will not find anywhere else, or at least not all together in one place.

Q: What is the best selling book right now?

A: Well, right now probably Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth. The book been out for a while, but with the help of Oprah, it is the best selling book. But there are many others. Marianne Williamson has a new book out, Swami Kryiananda's and Yogananda's books always sell extremely well.

Q: What is the all times best selling book here?

A: Probably The Power of Now. Also by Eckhart Tolle, it's been out for 7-8 years now and it still shows up on our bestselling list of 20 books almost every quarter. The other one would be The Autobiography of a Yogi by Yogananda.

Q: What would be your favorite book? It's a tough question, I know.

A: Probably for me it would be Kryiananda's Essence of the Bhagavad Gita. This book is over 500 pages long, and a very readable commentary with a translation of the text. The Gita is one of the two probably greatest scriptures that are available. The teachings are, I don't know even how to say it... the truths are obvious. It's a fabulous story, and it combines story telling with an allegorical way of bringing all the teachings humankind has to know.


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