In her new documentary, Circus of Books, filmmaker and artist Rachel Mason asks her parents, Karen and Barry, owners of the defunct West Hollywood institution for which the movie was named, to describe their business. After awkwardly glancing at her husband, Karen calls it a “bookstore and hardcore gay adult business.” Later, we see mom in the shop rummaging through boxes of cock rings, a magazine called Handjobs, and DVDs of a porno called Don’t Drop the Soap.
Before it closed in February, Circus of Books had been a West Hollywood institution for 37 years, or as a former employee in the movie puts it, “the center of the gay universe of that neighborhood.” But Rachel’s film, which screens at Outfest on July 18 before hitting Netflix this fall, isn’t just a eulogy for the shuttered store. It’s also a portrait of how a nice Jewish couple became behind-the-scenes icons in the gay community while raising their three kids.
“Initially, I thought this movie would be something for the LGBTQ archives,” Rachel says during a recent interview at Netflix’s Hollywood headquarters. “If you told me we’d be sitting at Netflix and the world would be seeing it, I wouldn’t have believed you. I was told I need to preserve this history because gay history is an undocumented history. To me this was a cultural artifact.”
Like many people, Karen and Barry sort of fell into the XXX industry. The two met at a Jewish singles’ party in Woodland Hills. Karen was a reporter who had written for the Cincinnati Enquirer and Washington Post, while Barry, a UCLA film student (his classmates included Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek), worked for a special-effects company for TV and movies that took on projects including Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and Airplane. Barry had invented accessories for dialysis machines, but his career in medical sales was short lived. Looking for new income, they found an ad by Larry Flynt Publications in the L.A. Times seeking independent distributers for his rags, which included not only Hustler, but bygone gay porn magazines like Honcho, Mandate, and Blueboy. Soon they were distributing to newsstands and liquor stores out of a truck.
Circus of Books, then Book Circus, was on the couple’s delivery route. After they learned the owner was failing to pay rent, Karen and Barry took over the lease in 1982, selling literature, periodicals, sex toys, and dirty movies stocked behind the store’s trademark, 18-and-over saloon doors. That same year saw the release of Making Love, a love-triangle drama starring Charlie’s Angels’ Kate Jackson and Harry Hamlin—and one of the first gay, mainstream Hollywood movies—which featured a scene filmed in “Vaseline alley” behind the store, a spot notorious for gay trysts.
The Masons expanded to Silver Lake and briefly the Valley; the Silver Lake location, which shut down in 2016, was originally the Black Cat Tavern and sight of gay-rights protests in 1967, two years before Stonewall.
Business was so good the couple even launched their own film production company in the early ‘90s, producing titles like Cop Shaft, Meat Me at the Fair, and Rimnastics Gold #2. Their biggest star was porn legend Jeff Stryker, who appears in the movie proudly holding his own action figure with poseable penis.
But peddling gay porn was risky and radical in the conservative Reagan era. The 1986 Meese Commission, named for Attorney General Edwin Meese, waged a war on obscenity. And the AIDS epidemic plagued gay men, including Karen and Barry’s employees, many of whom died from the disease.
“My parents owned the building and there were tenants who had AIDS, and I remember my parents talking to them and helping them with different things,” Rachel recalls. “They were very involved with these people who lost contact with their families and were dying. They were abandoned for no good reason. I’ve met runaways who had nowhere to go and were told to go to the Circus. The store was a safe haven. Porn served a purpose. It gave them an outlet at a time when there was a panic.”
The Masons even survived an FBI raid that resulted in a charge of illegal distribution of obscene material over state lines in Pennsylvania in 1991; the case was dropped. But they couldn’t escape the internet, which made porn free and their retail space obsolete. As Rachel notes, the mom-and-pop operation was also a meeting place for gay men that’s now lacking in the age of dating and hook-up apps.
In Circus of Books, which was executive produced by Ryan Murphy, Rachel interviews directors, activists, ex-employees, and customers, including RuPaul’s Drag Race runner-up Alaska Thunderfuck and even Flynt, as they reminisce about the store’s history. But Rachel, using home videos and photographs, reflects on how the family business impacted her and her brothers’ own lives.
As kids, they were mostly kept in the dark for fear of judgement and instructed to “look down” whenever inside the store. The three didn’t get wise until they were teenagers.
“They never told us,” Rachel admits about her parents. “My friends revealed it to me. They were the weird art kids in high school and they were going to my parents’ store. That’s what was funny about it. They tried to downplay it. The mantra was, ‘Let’s not talk about it.’ We had less sex education than people whose parents didn’t run a porn store.”
It’s one of the ironies Rachel explores about her family in the documentary, especially her mom.
Though Karen made her living in adult entertainment and was an eye-witness to the AIDS crisis, she was an observant Jew who went to synagogue and had difficulty accepting that one of her own sons was gay.
“People might find it shocking,” says Rachel. “But my parents saw all these young men dying. They understand what a challenge it is to be a gay man. Her concern came from a place of conservative religious values, which is crazy and in direct conflict with the store.”
Rachel captures her mom’s transformation, much like the LGBTQ community’s over the years.
“In a strange way she’s the whole anchor of the film,” says Rachel. “Her religious bias could’ve taken her the other way. Instead, she joined PFLAG [Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays]. She came out on the other side and embraced this community. The Jewish-mother love obliterates everything. That’s the power of this film and my goal is to make sure that she can be a role model for other parents who have that struggle.”