San Francisco Mission district's Zen oasis: Forest Books teaches for peace

by Aubrey Winkler, Literature Examiner, August 18, 2009

San Francisco, CA (USA) -- Forest Books, located at 3080 16th Street at Valencia and serving the Mission community with used, out of print and hard-to-find books daily from noon until 9pm, is more than meets the eye.

<< Japanese Enso, Zen symbol of Enlightenment

The store houses, aside from all the regularly scheduled accoutrement of your everyday bookstore, entire sections designated to topics such as Peace, Literature in translation to English, Metaphysics, Eastern Religion (and history focusing somewhat on Asian cultures), Zen and Ch’an; Anthropology, Science, Nature, Art (aligned poetically, I feel, in that order); the heading affectionately called “Literature” rather than “fiction,” essays and literary criticism, and Poetry. The Rare Book cases, housing first editions ranging from $15–200, holds some gems, but really the whole premises are filled with unique books that are in good, well-respected condition.

When you enter from busy 16th Street, you are immediately enmeshed in an oasis of tranquility. Peaceful jazz or tinkling Zen music flutters Buddhist prayer flags, but the store is still nicely open and fresh, like a combination new-book store and meditation center that happens to actually sell used at moderate prices. You may not know why, but upon your immediate entrance you feel more at peace.

This is no hallucination. The store’s philosophy worked upon by owner Gregory Wood is summed up by a discreet little sign hanging on the back wall: “Work quietly and diligently for peace. Begin within.” Mr. Wood, a lifelong Zen Buddhist with 30 years training, operates his “labor of love” store with a unique goal. Born 20 years ago from a desire for the occupation which does the least harm in the world (the Buddhist concept of “right livelihood”), Forest Books is all about sharing in what people love, selling books not as objects but for the sake of education; and not education as an end itself, but as means to cultivating peace.

Hosting occasional events – Joanne Kyger read a little while back – Forest Books is also home to open meditation sessions. Tuesday mornings around 9am and Saturdays around 8am, stop by to sit together in some informal Zen-type meditation. The two (Tuesday) or three (Saturday) back-to-back session of sit-40-walk-10 minutes is followed by breakfasting together, before the store opens.

Mr. Wood, kind enough to sit with me for over an hour in interview and discussion, traces his peaceful roots back, in a way, to Woodstock. Having written on 1960’s Counterculture, he has many ideas about the far-reaching information from that time period, and more so on its far-reaching disinformation. His personal philosophy, and that which is reflected in his store, centers neither on Woodstock/Beat Generation’s drug-induced euphoria nor radical free-love, but on the era’s atmosphere of being, in his words, entirely loving – the aspect that he feels has never been adequately represented and which he discusses in his own work.

Those loving ideals are what led him to Buddhism, what made Forest Books what it is to so many locals and returning customers, as well as newbies and casual passers-by. The place and the people involved aim to teach and inspire us to pacify human aggression, by practicing compassion – an individual effort grown in meditation and love, and descended perhaps from the long fingers of the 1960’s flower-power. You can stop in the store to buy, to sell, or just to talk about life, Zen, and books with Gregory, Jason, or Robert – the three highly talented, creative, and kind individuals involved in this treasure of an establishment.