When people asked Karen and Barry Mason what they did for a living, their typical answer was that they simply “ran a bookstore.”
What they often declined to mention was that their bookstore was the notorious Circus of Books — “a bookstore and a hardcore gay adult business,” as Karen describes it. The gay bookstore/video store/pornography shop in West Hollywood was an important gay cruising site and significant locale in Los Angeles queer history, and the Masons became its owners in 1982. The documentary, Circus of Books, directed by their daughter, Rachel Mason, tells the improbable story of the business alongside the story of the family.
The documentary begins with a home video, and this familial framing offers an intimate insight into the strange tale of how the Masons came to own this landmark bookstore, as they are perhaps the last people anyone would expect. Karen and Barry are a straight couple who met at a Jewish singles party in Woodland Hills, and had three children: Rachel, Josh, and Micah. Karen was initially a reporter specializing in criminal justice, while Barry was an inventor and special effects technician who dabbled in new kidney dialysis technology. But somehow, they eventually found themselves owning a store that sold “Nude and Rude” hardcore gay DVDs and Handjob Magazine.
A chorus of voices illuminates how Circus of Books was the “center of the gay universe,” with the shelves becoming a place for cruising, exploration, and self-discovery. Mason interviews a diverse array of people who passed through the store’s doors: customers, current and former employees, gay film directors, activists, bookstore groupies, and one regular visitor, who confesses with a laugh that he lost his virginity in the alley behind the store. This unconventional group of talking heads helps construct a history of gay L.A. and the Masons’ involvement. LGBTQ+ rights activist, Alexei Romanoff, recalls the decades of political revolt within the West Hollywood gay community, while Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler, helps recount the Masons’ origin of distributing his magazines. In a particularly memorable interview, adult film star Jeff Stryker, showing off an action figure of himself with opposable genitalia, tells how the Masons eventually began to branch out into hardcore gay film distribution. Karen may claim they never watched the movies themselves, but she and her husband are still undoubtedly key actors in political and pornographic history.
Snappy editing and shots of the kaleidoscopic displays capture the eccentric energy of the store with colorful panache. The visual style is as diverse as the material on sale, with the documentary juxtaposing sleek and well-lit interviews with grainy archival porn footage. Some moments are shakily handheld, as Rachel films conversations with her family, or mines their archives and home movies. There is a constant feeling that we are exploring somewhere remarkable, with Circus of Books feeling like the perfect place for discovering hidden treasures.
Yet while the Masons’ store served as a safe haven for the gay community to explore, they often did not feel the same openness themselves. They concealed the true nature of their business from their friends for fear of not being accepted, and did not even tell their children the full truth when they were being threatened with felony charges in the midst of federal obscenity investigations. As it wades deeper into the family’s hidden histories, and the conflicts that arose with their Jewish faith, the documentary explores some unexpected and startling emotional territory. Karen, who is still a practicing Jew, was raised in a conservative household, and her traditional beliefs frequently made her uncomfortable with discussing certain aspects of her business with others.
Even with Rachel Mason’s closeness to her subjects, she does not shy away from capturing them in all their complexities and contradictions. Karen, and the viewers, soon come to realize that her store, and the gay community it serves, are inseparable from her family life. In a searing moment, Josh Mason recounts the painful experience of realizing he was gay within a faith community that told him it was wrong. Barry was accepting when Josh came out; but Karen, despite decades in the queer pornography business, was utterly unable to understand her son being gay. She eventually underwent a transformation: admitting her deep regret of not giving her son her full love and acceptance. Then with the support of her family and bookstore community, Karen soon dedicated herself to LGBTQ+ advocacy with PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).
Economic concerns rise to the forefront in the final section of Circus of Books, and we see the store’s constant state of panic and precariousness. As online pornography and hookup apps destroy the whole porn-store business model, everyone involved with Circus of Books knows that things are reaching their end. But still, the staff tries to hang onto hope, reducing prices in order to serve customers for as long as possible. Financial considerations and the need to turn a profit cannot be ignored, but Circus of Books was about so much more than making money — it was about making a community.
Circus of Books eventually closed in 2019, and thus we bear witness to the end of an era. The documentary serves as a fittingly idiosyncratic memorial to the remarkable resource and vital meeting space that Circus of Books was. Circus of Books helped gay people find, perhaps for the first time, literature that spoke to their experiences. It offered them practically anything in the world of erotic media that their hearts could desire. Each moment of the documentary celebrates how rare a find the store was, and sends a heartfelt message of love and gratitude to the owners and patrons that keep the spirit alive. There is an air of mournful melancholy as the store’s neon sign goes out and Circle of Books shuts down – yet its vibrant light lives on within everyone who ever stepped inside.