“We’ve always belonged to a synagogue,” says Karen Mason. “Although the synagogues never knew what we were doing.” In fact, Mason kept her business a secret from almost everyone, including her kids Rachel, Micah and Josh. For thirty-five years, with husband Barry, she ran Circus of Books, a gay porn store that served as the Los Angeles epicenter of LGBT culture. “At one point,” Karen says, “we were probably the biggest distributor of hardcore gay films in the United States.” Now, with the store shuttered, filmmaker daughter Rachel tells their story in the Netflix documentary “Circus of Books.”
At the center of the film are odd couple Karen and Barry. Married for decades, she is devoutly religious; he shakes his head no when asked if he’s a believer. She harbors reservations about selling pornography, treating the raunchy magazines and sex toys they sell as a product, nothing more. For Karen their wares are a means to an end. One former employee sums up Karen’s attitude toward the merchandise as “like selling apples in an apple cart.” Barry is more supportive of both the business and the community it served. Both, according to porn star Jeff Stryker, are “good, honest, trustworthy people,” a rarity in the adult film biz.
Using old family home movies, archival footage and loads of new interviews with everyone from LGBT activists, porn icons like Larry Flynt and former employees (including Alaska, who later became a “RuPaul’s Drag Race” all-star) Mason’s movie is not simply a tribute to an influential institution like the Tower Records doc “All Things Must Pass.” Instead she uses the book store, and the safe space it provided for LGBT people, to provide an intimate look into her unusual family. When they aren’t being pressured to plead guilty to a federal obscenity charge or ordering sex toys at a porn convention—“I don’t particularly like looking at it,” Karen says as she passes a sex toy display, “I notice it without ever really looking at it.”—they lead a life that is more “Leave it to Beaver” than “Boogie Nights.”
That dichotomy provides and interesting narrative push and pull that is deepened by the history of the store’s thirty five year run. The devastation of AIDS, the persecution by religious groups and conservative politicians are all handled with care but it is the personal story of Karen’s crisis of acceptance when her son Josh comes out as gay that provides the biggest emotional moments.
“Circus of Books” details the “aging, ailing business’” last days. The legendary store (and its second location in Silverlake) closed in 2019, victim of changing times, Pornhub and Grindr. Mason’s camera details the last gasps of the once powerful place, right up to Karen taping a closed sign to the door. The store may be long gone but its ethos of embracing who you are, is well represented in this charming documentary.