In ‘Circus of Books,’ musician Rachel Mason shares the story of how her parents, purveyors of lube, poppers, sex toys and porn, became unwitting heroes for L.A.’s gay community through the AIDS crisis and beyond.
The “Circus of Books” story has everything a temporarily couch-bound society could want from a Netflix and chill session. Even as it deals with the heaviness of the AIDS epidemic and struggles of the gay community, the documentary is light-hearted, full of giggles, absurdity and, ultimately, love. It’s a family film, albeit an unconventional one.
To the point, “Circus of Books” is about an unassuming conservative couple, Karen and Barry Mason, who wound up running L.A.’s most notorious gay porn shop for 35 years — at one time, they were the largest distributor of gay pornographic films in the country. At its peak in the ’80s and ’90s, their shop was a safe space for the marginalized gay community and a hotbed for cruising.
It’s a story their filmmaker/artist daughter, Rachel, felt compelled to immortalize. “I realized my parents had this unique inside view of an era that is gone,” she says. “I couldn’t let their story disappear when they closed the store.”
At first, the documentary was a side project. The deeper she dug, however, the more she uncovered about her parents’ significant involvement. “The film is essentially about two people who are unlikely heroes to a community that was suffering,” Rachel says. They knew Tom of Finland personally. They visited sick employees and customers abandoned by their families. Their foray into producing gay porn paid for their kids’ Ivy-league educations.
Combining archival footage and interviews with family photos, the film traces the story back to the Black Cat raids of the early 1960s and onward to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, the Reagan-Bush era crusade against obscenity that almost landed Barry in prison, up to modern-day, as her parents-turned-activists proudly participate in LGBTQ+ marches.
Rachel finds it amusing that she sort of fell into the documentary world. “People ask me, ‘So, you’re a documentary filmmaker?’ And I’m like, ‘Not intentionally.’”
Rachel is primarily an experimental musician, performance artist and sculptor with 13 albums under her belt and a penchant for dressing up as a trickster clown in spirited, abstract, music videos. She’s made a feature film, “The Lives of Hamilton Fish,” a musical about a serial killer and a Westchester politician with the same name who died one day apart in 1936. And she was working on another musical feature called “The End Age of Stars,” about gender and the cosmos, when “Circus of Books” took over.
“Anyone who’s ever followed me or my work knows that I’m actually more of a weirdo artist,” she says. “My people are the weirdos of the world.”
She thought “Circus of Books” would appeal to those weirdos. “I was thinking this is for the niche group of people who know about the store in L.A.,” she says. “It’s for my gays, my scene. And then it was like, surprise, this is your A-list mainstream project. Everything else you do is going to be relegated to the shadows of this documentary.” Not that she’s complaining.
“I didn’t set out to make such a personal film,” Rachel says. It turned into a portrait of her family. We see them through her eyes. Her mom, the stern rule-enforcer and religious parent who Rachel constantly quibbles with, who doesn’t think the story will be of any interest to anybody and gets flustered by the camera. Then, there’s her easy-going dad, who’s always smiling, wears Hawaiian shirts and seems like he could make friends with just about anyone.
They kept their job a secret. As far as Rachel knew, her folks ran a bookstore and, for weird parental reasons, the kids weren’t allowed to tell anyone the shop’s name.
“I always assumed every store had an ‘Over 18’ section,” Rachel says. “And it probably isn’t anything interesting anyway since it’s for grownups.” Rachel and her brothers, Micah and Josh, enjoyed taunting their mom by running through the forbidden area. “My mom would chase us around all the naked people stuff and it was just funny to us,” Rachel says. Mostly, the kids wanted to get their hands on the candy counter.
The Masons never set out to be purveyors of lube, poppers, sex toys and porn. Karen started off as a journalist and Barry was a special effects engineer — he worked on “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Star Trek” — who then went on to invent dialysis equipment. They met at a Jewish singles event in Woodland Hills. One day, they answered a newspaper ad from Larry Flynt looking for small distributors to circulate “Hustler.” Larger companies wouldn’t work with him. Flynt himself appears in the documentary to recall his long relationship with the Masons.
The couple gave it a shot. They packed up their car with magazines and hit up the small bookstores in town. As business blossomed, they stumbled upon an opportunity to take over a WeHo store, then called Book Circus, and would eventually open up a second location in Silver Lake.
It seems they kept Circus in the shop’s name simply because it allowed them to save money by repurposing the storefront sign. There was nothing circus-oriented about the store’s interior aesthetic, with its medicinal grey-blue walls, plain white shelves, randomly placed posters and fluorescent overhead lights. The content of the shelves and the infamous sexual exploits going on behind the shop, well, that bit became more of a sexual circus.
“The whole operation was a little goofy,” Barry says during the film, ever-cheerful as he addresses the rampant activity going on behind the shop along what was dubbed ‘Vaseline Alley.’ He and his wife claim to have never watched the videos they sold. They had zero interest in the merchandise and were practically, intentionally, blind to it. It’s funny to watch Karen shuffle through salacious DVD titles and walk past walls of dildos as if they were mundane objects like staplers or vegetables or toilet paper. “It’s like they’re selling apples in an apple cart,” says drag queen and former employee Alaska in the documentary.
It seems crazy. Why not do literally anything else? For Karen, it came down to the fact that sex magazines sold better than the other magazines they tried. “It was her obsession with having food on the table,” Rachel says. “She was the ‘Television is going to ruin your mind’ and ‘Candy is going to ruin your teeth’ kind of person. We had to eat cod liver oil. I was raised in a religious household holding on to ideas from the 1950s.”
It wasn’t until high school that Rachel found out the bookstore was a porn shop. Easily the most open-minded member of her family, she’s proud of what they did, even if her mom refuses to toot her own horn. “I see their store as a form of activism,” Rachel says. “My parents weren’t just front-row observers of gay porn. They were completely wedded to it. They’re a part of its history. I just wish my mom would mellow out and appreciate the work she did for this community.”
As the Internet age dawned, her parents seemed disinterested in evolving with the times, letting papers pile up and the shops fall into disrepair. Circus of Books began its slow decline well into the 2000s.
So as not to give away the whole movie, let’s just say Karen becomes more accepting of gay culture after a significant turning point in the family’s life. And while there are certainly people who will dismiss the film because of the stigma surrounding porn and homophobia, Rachel hopes it can open up some people’s eyes.
“The challenge of fighting homophobia and sex-shaming is one of the fundamental challenges of our time,” she says. “It goes hand in hand with fighting all discrimination. That’s what a film like this is all about, trying to get out there so we can challenge these scary stereotypes that need to be upended.”
Watch Rachel’s new music video, shot in Circus of Books after it was cleared out, featuring Peaches and Buck Angel.