2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Circus of Books’

May 3, 2019

by Carla Hay

Circus of Books
Rachel Mason with parents Barry and Karen Mason in “Circus of Books” (Photo by Gretchen Warthen)

“Circus of Books”

Directed by Rachel Mason

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 26, 2019.

“Circus of Books” is a truly unique documentary that tells the behind-the-scenes story of Circus of Books, the Los Angeles-based company that got most of its profits through gay male pornography and operated multiple stores and a production company. Circus of Books—which had the same owners from 1982 until the business closed in February 2019—was literally a “mom and pop” operation, since the business was owned by married couple Karen and Barry Mason, who are the parents of three children. Their middle child, Rachel, directed this film to chronicle the history of Circus of Books and the last days before the business shut down.

Rachel takes the Werner Herzog/Michael Moore documentarian approach of being the narrator, on-camera interviewer and one of the stars of the movie. The documentary begins by showing the history of the bookstore before the Masons owned it. The LGBTQ activist Black Cat demonstration in 1967 in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood preceded the Stonewall demonstrations in New York City by two years, but both were important events in gay civil rights that had similarities, because both were sparked by LGBTQ people fighting back against police harassment and raids of gay nightclubs.

The Black Cat nightclub and the New Faces nightclub were part of the Los Angeles gay nightlife scene in the 1960s. New Faces would eventually become the gay bookstore Book Circus. When Book Circus went out of business, the Masons took it over and renamed the space Circus of Books, which carried a wide array of family-friendly inventory, but it was outsold by what was in the adult section of the store. So how did this straight Jewish couple end up in the gay porn business?

Karen, whom many people in the documentary describe as bossy and domineering, started off as a criminal-justice journalist, who worked for publications such as the Wall Street Journal (in the Chicago bureau) and the Cincinnati Enquirer. Barry, who’s described as gentle and laid-back, used to work at the University of California at Los Angeles’ film department in the mid-1960s, when the Doors members Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek were briefly students there, before the Doors became a world-famous rock band. Barry worked in special effects and had credits that included the original “Star Trek” TV series.

Barry applied his skills in special effects to invent dialysis equipment in the early years of his marriage to Karen. The couple then went into the business together to sell the equipment and were doing well financially. But then they made the mistake of selling the rights to the equipment, and they began to have financial hardships. It was during this challenging time in their marriage that Karen saw an ad seeking distributors for porn magazines. She answered the ad, thinking that it was a temporary way to make money until they could become more financially stable.

When the owner of the West Hollywood store Book Circus was facing eviction because he wasn’t paying his rent, Barry jumped at the chance to take over the business, and he and Karen changed the name of the store to Circus of Books. The business became so successful that they opened a second location in the Silver Lake neighborhood in 1985. (The Silver Lake location closed in 2016.) A third Circus of Books location opened in Sherman Oaks in the late 1980s, but lasted for only two years; it was shut down because of too many neighborhood complaints about the store’s adult content and the clientele it attracted. The Masons further expanded the business by starting a gay porn film-production company. Porn star Jeff Stryker, porn director Matt Sterling and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt are among the Masons’ former colleagues who are interviewed in the movie.

Karen describes herself as religious, while Barry says that he’s not. (Because of their differing views on religion, she calls their relationship a “mixed marriage.”) Even though she and Barry made their living from hardcore porn, Karen says she never really liked to see any of the porn that they sold. She also didn’t want to hear details about the cruising and sexual activities that were going on at Circus of Books. (In 1989, the city of West Hollywood ordered that the store shut down between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., in response to complaints about hustlers at Circus of Books.) Karen’s ability to separate her religious beliefs from her business activities is demonstrated in a scene where she goes to a convention for sex toys and looks over products in a sales-minded, detached manner. It’s almost like she’s the owner of a hardware store who’s shopping for tools and pondering the sales value of what she might buy.

Past and present store employees say that even though Karen never really watched the porn that she sold, what she did watch closely was the financial accounting for the business, and she was a strict “taskmaster” boss, while Barry was more likely to give their employees some slack if they made a mistake. In the years before the Internet changed the porn industry, business was booming for Circus of Books.

Things also began to change for Circus of Books in 1993, when the Masons were busted for transporting obscene material across state lines, due to the mail-order part of their business. The FBI got involved, but the parents kept their legal problems hidden from their three kids. Even though Bill Clinton’s election as U.S. president meant that new prosecutors were appointed to the Masons’ case, the case wasn’t dismissed until 1995. The legal turmoil that the Masons went through had repercussions on the business for many years to come.

As the director of the documentary, Rachel is shown on camera interviewing people, including Circus of Books employees; her parents; and her older and younger brothers. Viewers get to see some of their family dynamics, as Rachel (who describes herself as an artistic free spirit) tries to figure out how her parents’ unusual line of work might have affected their family. Rachel doesn’t really interrogate as much as have conversations with the people involved in the business.

On the one hand, the family is disappointed that they have to close Circus of Books—the rise of Internet porn and gay dating apps such as Grindr essentially made Circus of Books an obsolete business. On the other hand, the business was losing so much money in its last few years (plus, Karen and Barry Mason were getting ready to retire anyway) that shuttering the business is almost a relief for the family.

What viewers won’t be seeing in this documentary are explicit scenes of gay porn, nor will they see undercover video of people cruising at Circus of Books, although there are some people interviewed in the film who talk about their cruising experiences. What’s more surprising (and revealing) is how someone as conservative and religious as Karen lasted as long as she did in the gay porn business. It’s clear from watching the film that she saw the business only as a means to make money to provide a comfortable life for her family. She didn’t see the customers as “family,” only as part of the business.

That emotional detachment explains why Karen had a difficult time coming to terms with her homophobia when her youngest child, Josh (Rachel’s younger brother), came out as gay when he was in college. (By contrast, Barry was more accepting of Josh’s sexual orientation.) In the documentary, Josh talks about the anguish of keeping his sexuality a secret.

And in case anyone is ignorant enough to think his parents’ line of work made him gay, Josh reiterates that he would be gay regardless of what his parents did for a living. According to the documentary, when the Mason children were growing up, Karen and Barry apparently went to great lengths not to expose their children to the porn that Karen and Barry sold. The spouses kept the type of business they did a secret for many years from their children and people in their straight community. In the years before the Internet existed, it was easier to keep this type of secret.

Growing up, Josh was considered the “perfect” child who excelled in school, but he was afraid to come out as gay because he knew it would upset his mother. The irony is not lost on Rachel, who confronts her mother about the hypocrisy of making a living from gay customers and yet not be willing to accept that one of her children is part of the gay community too. The documentary points out that it took years for Karen to be at the place where she is now: a proud member of PFLAG, the organization for parents, families and friends of lesbians and gays.

“Circus of Books” is a low-budget film that keeps the production values very basic in telling the story. There’s no fancy editing or arty cinematography. The movie also strikes the right balance between showing touches humor but not at the expense of addressing serious topics, such as the effect that the AIDS crisis had on numerous Circus of Books customers and employees. On the surface, the movie is about a gay porn business and how it affected the gay social scene in Los Angeles. But underneath the surface, this documentary is really about how this “mom and pop” business affected the family who owned it.

Netflix will premiere “Circus of Books” on April 22, 2020.