Circus of Books: A moving, insightful documentary about an iconic gay bookstore and the straight couple who ran it
By David-Elijah Nahmod
Rachel Mason's Circus of Books, now streaming on Netflix, is an insightful documentary about her parents, a down to earth straight couple who just happened to run a gay adult bookstore while moonlighting as porn film producers.
Barry and Karen Mason were out of work in the 1970s when they found a job distributing Hustler magazine for publisher Larry Flynt. When they saw that one of the stores they were selling the raunchy publication to was suffering from financial hardship, they made the landlord an offer and took over the store. For the next 35 years, this seemingly conservative Jewish couple ran Circus of Books, an adult bookstore that catered to the Los Angeles gay community.
The Masons led a double life. They hid the nature of their work from their friends, their rabbi, and, for a time, even their children. Eventually, they became the biggest producers and distributors of gay porn in the United States, working with gay porn superstar Jeff Stryker, who appears in this film in newly shot interview footage.
Circus of Books is a fascinating look at a most unconventional family. At home the Masons ran a typical middle-class household — Karen professes to be deeply religious and is quite involved in her synagogue. But the store was a very different world from the white picket fence they went home to. At the store, Karen is seen going through a collection of gay porn discs so she can fill a customer's order. She points to a box filled with sex toys.
"These are called cockrings," she says matter of factly.
The film goes into Barry and Karen's pre-bookstore backgrounds. Karen was a criminal justice journalist and Barry was a special effects technician for the film industry — he worked on the classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and spent three years on the crew of the original Star Trek TV series. In their earlier lives, they would never have imagined themselves working in the adult industry.
But they made a success of their unexpected business venture, creating a homey atmosphere that welcomed the local gay community. Circus of Books became more than a place where customers could buy the latest copy of Handjobs Magazine — it was a place where people could meet and connect with each other, as several of their customers recall in the film.
"Circus of Books was my first glimpse into the fact that I wasn't alone as a gay person," says one customer.
Perhaps most movingly, Circus of Books recalls the AIDS era, which devastated the LGBTQ community. The Masons saw many people die, including members of their own staff.
They speak somberly of one employee who went home on Friday and who was dead by Monday. Barry recalls another dying young man who had been rejected by his family.
"But he's your son," a shocked Barry says to the parents.
As supportive as she was of the gay community, Karen's conservative streak reared its head when her son Josh comes out as gay. Josh Mason speaks extensively on camera about this experience, and fortunately, Mom comes around. Karen and Barry are now respected members of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). One of the film's most uplifting moments is seeing them march past their store with the PFLAG contingent in the LA Pride Parade.
Circus of Books is no longer in business and the Masons are living in comfortable retirement. They were forced to close when porn became freely available on the internet and when dating apps like Grindr made their product obsolete.
As a film, Circus of Books is a riveting look at both an unconventional couple, and at an era that's now part of history.
It's highly unlikely that LA, or anywhere else, will ever see a store like Circus of Books again. Rachel Mason has done a wonderful job of preserving the store's history.