Rachel Mason grew up believing that her parents ran a small bookstore in Los Angeles. She wasn’t entirely mistaken, although the naive young woman — then an artsy teen, now a documentary filmmaker — never imagined that, as her mother Karen bluntly tells her on camera, “at one point, we were probably the biggest distributor of hardcore gay films in the United States.” Named for the now-defunct SoCal fixture, “Circus of Books” is an affectionate look at one of the most unusual mom and pop businesses in America, directed by the person who knew Mom and Pop best.
As such, it’s no great surprise that Rachel (who puts herself on screen up front) focuses on Karen and Barry Mason, the straight, middle-class California couple who established and operated the shop, rather than what such an establishment meant to L.A.’s gay population at the time. Mixed among the vintage home-movie footage and fresh interviews with individual family members, Mason offers a reasonable amount of Los Angeles’ LGBT history, touching on the historic New Year’s Eve police raid of the Black Cat Tavern (and subsequent gay rights protests, which predated the Stonewall riots by more than two years), the AIDS crisis and the impact of online porn and Grindr-style hookup apps on gay cruising culture. Still, she downplays — and doesn’t seem to fully understand — the full significanceof an institution like Circus of Books.
Here was a store that sold magazines and printed matter out front, but boasted a bigger “back room” that customers could access via a pair of swinging doors, opening onto row upon row of hardcore gay videos, sex toys and so on. Locals would visit at all hours intending to buy or rent a movie, and if they were lucky, they might wind up meeting (or renting) a handsome stranger in the process. Apparently, some even used the building’s attic to seal the deal, though the Masons claim to have been unaware of such activity.
Rachel speaks to a few old-timers who fondly recall the scene, including a regular who recalls losing his virginity in “Vaseline Alley” (as the cruisy block behind the shop was called), but she’s clearly more interested in trying to make sense of her parents’ involvement. In a country where pornography was harshly stigmatized — until the internet made it ubiquitous (and free) — why would these two choose to make a career of it? Digging into the family archives, she finds that Karen was once a determined newspaper reporter, seeking out edgy stories, while Barry worked in the Hollywood visual effects field, using his expertise to invent a sensor used with dialysis equipment.
When those pursuits didn’t pan out, they switched careers entirely, responding to an ad placed by Larry Flynt Publications to help distribute Hustler and other adult magazines — which were being targeted by religious groups and conservative politicians at the time. In 1982, when one of their clients lost his lease, the Masons acquired Book Circus — located on Santa Monica Boulevard, in the heart of West Hollywood — rearranged the words of the sign out front and started selling directly to the gay community.
Their business evolved with the VHS revolution, and explicit videos soon replaced magazines as their most profitable merchandise. Before long, the Masons began producing hardcore movies themselves, partnering with director Matt Sterling and gay porn star Jeff Stryker to create their own content. “We never saw any of those movies,” Karen says, averting her eyes when confronted with a wall full of dildos — which again raises the question of how Circus of Books could be the work of such a couple. Seen today, as grandparents, Barry looks like a happier, all-smiles version of the pitchfork-wielding farmer in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” while Karen, who raised her children in the Jewish faith, could be one of the women holding “burn in hell” signs at a Pride parade. In fact, she had considerable difficulty when her son Josh came out as gay — by far the most interesting/ironic development in the Mason family saga — and became an active member of PFLAG.
Like so many Americans, Rachel seems to think of her folks as asexual, showing little curiosity about their personal appetites — which may be private but are undeniably relevant to the subject at hand. Rather, the film reflects a kind of new appreciation for her parents’ contributions, reframing them less as outlaw porn-trepreneurs (at one point, Barry was pressured to plead guilty in a federal obscenity rap) than as avant-garde social workers, committed to serving an under-represented minority. Even so, the film is hardly a hagiography, but more of an homage to a bygone institution, reminiscent of such non-LGBT docs as Shopin’s-centric “I Like Killing Flies” and Tower Records elegy “All Things Must Pass.”
Both Circus of Books locations have since closed their doors (the Silver Lake location is now a weed dispensary), which evokes a kind of nostalgia — especially as the opening-night film of L.A.-based Outfest — for a time when they seemed essential. Rachel interviews a range of supporters, from LGBT activists to porn icons (like Stryker and Flynt) to former shop employees (including one, Alaska, who went on to become a “RuPaul’s Drag Race” all-star), though that side of the film still feels anemic compared to the more vérité-style footage of the stores’ final days.
How quaint it must seem to younger viewers, who may give this racier title a look on Netflix, to imagine a time when porn and hookups weren’t readily available via their cell phones. If only Mason had included candid footage from the shops’ surveillance cameras, revealing — like some kind of nature documentary — how gay men comported themselves back when they were obliged to make such connections in person.