Circus of Books
A biographical documentary on the life of gay porn bookstore owners, Barry and Karen Mason.
*Editor's Note: The following article is Rated MA for Mature Audiences. Contains adult material which may offend some readers. Discretion is advised.
Circus of Books are a couple of stores in the West Hollywood and Silver Lake neighborhoods of Los Angeles that specialize in gay pornography. The store opened in the 1960s, but in the early 80s, the owner was having financial difficulties, and one of their merchandise distributers took the opportunity to take over. The new owners were Barry and Karen Mason, a straight Jewish couple, who for 30 years ran what would be an iconic part of the gay scene in LA. The 2019 film, Circus of Books, is a documentary of the Mason’s life, both personal and professional, written and directed by their daughter, Rachel. In addition to running the store, the couple also began making and distributing gay porn movies. Including many movies starring gay porn legend, Jeff Stryker, who is interviewed in the film. The store became a safe space for homosexual men to meet and cemented itself as an important site of Los Angeles’ gay history.
The Mason’s weren’t what you would think of as your cliched porn peddlers. Before Karen met Barry, she was a journalist who quickly got burnt out. Karen believes to get a good story; you have to meet people having the worst day of their lives. You either become incredibly jaded or like Karen, you burn out. Barry studied film making and cinematic special effects. He left the business, when a sensor for dialysis machines he invented began making money. The two met at a singles party and seven months later were married. They were starting a family, but when the malpractice insurance become too expensive, Barry found himself without an income. Karen found an ad in the paper asking for people who wanted to make money as distributers for Larry Flynt. Barry became very successful at this, which led to the opportunity mentioned above. The store was never meant to be a career, it was just something to get them by until another opportunity came along. But none ever did. The couple had three children, who they kept what the did for a living a secret from, at least while they were children.
The family had its ups and downs. Barry, is laid back and easy going and always has a smile on his face, Karen is a force of nature with a very strong and straight forward attitude. She is also very devout to her Jewish faith. With the AIDs crisis starting in the 80s and hitting the gay community hard, the couple lost several employees including most of the stars of the films that they produced. Karen and Barry both recount how most of these young men’s family members refused to come and see their children as they were dying. Also during the Reagan era, the Mason’s found themselves in legal trouble, as the government’s witch hunt for porn distributers was at a high. Barry was possibly facing jail time, but the Clinton era, ushered in a more lenient view, and the charges were mostly dropped.
For years Karen ran a gay bookstore, hiring and working with many homosexual men. She never had a problem with that, but when her own son, Josh, came out to the family, Karen couldn’t accept it. She really struggled and said some horrible things to her son the night he came out, which she wishes she could take back. She never stopped loving her son, she did not throw him out of the house, she didn’t disown him, she just had a very difficult time reconciling her love for her son and her devout Jewish beliefs. She joined PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), which helped her come to terms with her feelings. Now she helps other families going through the same thing.
The 21st Century brought a whole new set of challenges for the business. The popularity of internet porn eroded their business, and the couple didn’t know how to adapt. The Silver Lake store closed in 2016, and the final portion of the film chronicles the closing of the West Hollywood store in 2019. The sadness of laying off long term employees and the donation of some material to the One National Gay and Lesbian Archive on the USC campus, and the last customer coming through the store, with the lights finally being turned off. It was the end of an era for the Mason’s and a vital part of gay history. After the movie was finished. The store was bought from the Masons by famed porn director and drag queen, Chi Chi LaRue, and the store re-opened in 2020 as Chi Chi LaRue’s Circus, which includes more upscale product offerings.
I found this film very interesting and emotionally moving, and I am not entirely sure why. The material is presented in a very matter of fact way. Barry and Karen seem like your everyday average good people. They were honest, trustworthy and loving parents who were well liked by their employees and vendors. I think I liked this film because I had a connection to the time periods they were covering. Josh, speaking of what he was like in school and his fears about coming out to his family, were very similar to my own feelings during basically the same years (late 80s to early 90s). I remember the AIDs crisis, and I remember the stigma, discrimination and the hatred aimed towards a community. I wrote several papers about this subject in college, including a presentation about Ryan White. Before my own “coming out”, I remember going to stores, very much like Circus of Books, and feeling relief that if places like this existed, it meant I wasn’t the only one going through this in the world. Some will not understand the intense loneliness one feels when they are still in the closet. This movie, reminded me very much of my own journey through life, so I was emotionally invested in the story being told.
This was a well done look into the everyday life of ordinary people who ran an extraordinary business. I felt an emotional connection to the film and the characters depicted.
Circus of Books: Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover
- Writing - 8/108/10
- Storyline - 8/108/10
- Acting - 9/109/10
- Music - 8/108/10
- Production - 8/108/10
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