Netflix's 'Circus Of Books' Tells The Family Story Of The Legendary West Hollywood Gay Porn Shop
Circus of Books was an iconic bookstore/gay porn shop in West Hollywood for decades until closing last year, no longer able to keep up with competition from the internet. Now the daughter of the couple that ran it all those years has documented its story in the new Netflix documentary Circus of Books.
Barry and Karen Mason, along with their daughter and filmmaker Rachel Mason, spoke with LAist about the store and the documentary.
Looking back at her own time running a small business made Karen thankful she wasn't doing so during the coronavirus pandemic.
"I feel so badly for all the small businesses that are affected by this, because I know exactly what they're going through — and unfortunately, I don't think a lot of them are going to recover. I don't know that we would have recovered," Karen told LAist.
REVEALING THE FAMILY'S HISTORY
Rachel has worked on other artistic projects before, and she doesn't think her parents expected this one to receive the kind of acclaim — and wide distribution — that it's getting. The store had been a family secret, with Rachel and her brothers instructed to tell people that her parents ran a book store, without getting into specifics.
"I think it's a very good film. I just wish it was about somebody else," Karen said.
"Everybody was welcome in that store. It was not a gay store, actually — it was like 50/50, which is probably quite a lot, in the terms of gay material," Barry said.
"It clearly was a gay place for most people who knew about it, even though you never set it out to be specifically a gay place," Rachel responded.
A PLACE FOR GAY MEN TO MEET
The store offered material for gay men that they couldn't find elsewhere at the time, Barry said.
"I always thought it was just friendly, almost like a bar, where people could just come to chat, and talk — and not drink in this case, but buy reading material — and viewing material," Barry said.
Circus of Books was a meeting place, with gay men congregating both in the store and the alley behind it, known locally as "Vaseline Alley."
"What customers, or visitors bring into the store is their own — I was always focused on running a business," Karen added.
"On the one hand, it's unfortunate that gay people were relegated to finding each other in the shadows and the margins of society, because it was illegal [at that time]," Rachel said, "but ... many in the gay communities lament the loss of these places, simply because they had cultural codes. ... And those kinds of things are just lost. However, it's really good that gay people have the right to exist now."
THE LEGACY OF A GAY LIFEBOAT
It took the store closing for Karen to realize what an impact Circus of Books had made over the years, with people coming in to tell the owners what the store meant to them.
"There were a lot of people who were closer to my age, who had been through the AIDS epidemic, except they were still there, because that store saved their lives. It was a place to go, and it kept them safe," Karen said.
The Masons bought the shop — previously known as "Book Circus" since it opened in 1960 — in 1982, when it was close to bankruptcy. They flipped around the name and helped the store grow alongside the gay community's increasing public footprint.
When the AIDS epidemic started in the 1980s, it had a visible impact on both the store's customers and its employees. The shop got through that time and continued to grow — the Masons didn't plan to run the store as long as they did, but Karen said that it just kept getting bigger.
The Masons eventually opened up three locations, before each ultimately closed. The other storefronts were set up in Silver Lake and Sherman Oaks.
"Most of what we did — we were very fortunate, because we had wonderful employees," Karen said. "And they really guided us through the whole thing. Because we kind of never knew exactly what we were doing."
"Yeah," Barry said. "I mean, we didn't know the merchandise, at all. And these fellas that worked for us knew it — they were good at it, they picked everything, and almost everything they picked sold."
INSIDE THE FAMILY
Rachel was queer herself, but her mother was affected differently when one of Rachel's brothers came out as gay. Karen realized that she'd absorbed a lot of prejudice against gay people from her conservative Jewish faith, Karen said.
"I had to relearn my theology, and meet other people who struggled," said Karen.
She started to meet with other parents who had a child whose orientation or sexuality was different than what they expected, and continues to go to those meetings to remain active in the community. Rachel realized that one of the reasons she was treated so differently from her brother when they both came out stemmed from her parents' experience watching their male-identifing employees and customers die during the AIDS crisis, without seeing the same thing happen to women.
"Most parents really are better off accepting their child as they are, and not trying to make their child into what they think they should be," Karen said.
END OF AN ERA
The store carried other specialty publications beyond gay pornography. But the gay men's magazines that used to line the store shelves started to go out of business thanks to the internet, and Karen resorted to buying used books and heading to estate sales just to find something to fill the store, she said.
"We could have hung on a little longer. But really, the people who were staying with us needed to find better jobs," Karen said.
That's because, like many facing the larger economic downturn of the moment, she'd had to make cutbacks, which included no longer being able to provide the store's employees with health insurance and pensions, according to Karen.
Foot traffic was down as well — both due to a lack of material and, as Rachel notes, the rise of apps like Grindr. It soon became clear that gay men no longer had to go to Circus of Books to find each other.
Mega-producer Ryan Murphy executive-produced the documentary — if he ends up going forward with a series based on the store, Rachel said, she expects to tell stories that get into the side of her parents' business that really touched on the different cultures between stores — in West Hollywood vs. Silver Lake, for instance.
"I had been aware of Circus of Books from the moment I moved to Los Angeles in my 20s," Murphy said in a statement. "By viewing larger historic events through the lens of a family in denial, that narrow focus allows viewers of even the most limited experience to find themselves in a position of understanding and acceptance."