CIRCUS OF BOOKS: Gay Culture In West Hollywood

When Rachel Mason was a child she would tell friends that her parents ran a bookstore. As far as she knew, this was the truth: Karen and Barry Mason owned and operated Circus of Books in West Hollywood for over 30 years. Theirs was a successful business which branched off into side projects such as film distribution and community activism. There was something not quite right though: whenever Rachel or her brothers would enter the store they were under explicit orders to stare at the floor and never at the contents on the shelves. The shop was shrouded in secrecy, and never discussed much among the family at all. It wasn’t until much later that Rachel found out the truth: Circus of Books was, at one point at least, the biggest purveyor of hardcore homoerotic pornography in America. On top of that, Rachel’s parents not just sold pornography through their bookshop, they also produced it.

Circus of Books is a truly fascinating look at a slice of family life in such unusual circumstances. Directed by Rachel Mason herself – and interspersed with grainy homemade footage of the Masons’ young fledgling family – this documentary attempts to explore and examine the dichotomy of being an average Jewish couple operating at what was arguably the epicentre of gay culture in West Hollywood throughout the 80’s and 90’s. Although it doesn’t always hit the mark, and there are certain aspects you wish Mason had delved further into, ultimately Circus of Books packs so much heart and warmth that only the coldest of souls would fail to be moved by it come the end credits.

More Than a Bookstore

It’s perhaps one of the film’s biggest letdowns that it’s never fully explored why Karen and Barry decided to open a gay bookstore. On the face of it, they have no ties to the community, no particular passion for the material, and no real history of retail experience. Karen Mason was a journalist covering articles about the likes of Hustler (Larry Flynt makes a cameo interview in a particularly compelling sequence), while Barry was an inventor working in special effects for movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Quite why they chose the path they did is glossed over slightly. Simply put: Karen decided they should bulk buy Hustler magazines and sell them to retail stores. This they did quite successfully, until they discovered one of their distributors – a book shop called Book Circus – was about to go under due to the owner’s cocaine habit. They stepped in, cannily changed the name slightly (Karen mentions here that they were always looking for the cheapest way to do something in case the venture never worked out), and began to operate the business.

CIRCUS OF BOOKS: Gay Culture In West Hollywood
source: Netflix

What Rachel Mason focuses on most throughout the opening hour, at least, is the dual narratives of her parents’ burgeoning business and the rise of gay culture through the 80’s and 90’s. This is done effectively well; our view of the Mason family, both from the homemade footage and through Rachel’s interviews with her brothers, paints a picture of a quietly religious nuclear family living the American Dream. This is juxtaposed with the rise of the AIDS crisis (Circus of Books tragically lost a number of employees in such a swift manner it’s shocking to think how they were able to maintain a business), and the solidarity of the gay community through the shop itself.

Through interviews with former employees we come to learn how important Circus of Books was in helping homosexuals find each other, and their tribe. Acceptance is a huge part of what the shop offered; a place to be yourself. As well as this, customers noted how important it was to see themselves represented on the shelves. Their sexual preferences and desires were validated by the material they were exposed to, and it’s hard to overstate how important that must have been to a culture that was just forming back then, a culture that was otherwise subject to discrimination and persecution.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Circus of Books is in its interviews with Karen and Barry, both together and separately. While Barry is quite possibly the most affable, good-natured man you’re likely to see in a documentary that doesn’t feature Tom Hanks – and possessing one of the most infectious smiles ever to grace a camera – Karen is something of his opposite, and really the ringleader of the operation. This is fascinating because you get the sense that Karen was never very proud of her achievements with Circus of Books, nor with what she gave to the gay community. Instead, and somewhat amusingly, everything is strictly business – one remarkable scene shows Karen at a sex shop expo. Browsing through a litany of intimidating sex toys, she casually tells the operator that she’ll take 12 bottles of anal lube and refuses the newer items because ‘those never sell that well’.

It’s both in interactions like these and during her interview that we notice the divide between Karen’s business stratagem and the reality of what she’s selling; one former employee astutely comments she could be selling apples from an apple-cart for all the difference it made to her. She is never put off or intimidated by what she’s dealing in, allowing herself to hide behind the business-as-usual facade which protects her from engaging with the community in the way you imagine most other retailers might. She admits she didn’t want her husband to talk about their business – although he didn’t have much problem with it – and is careful to distance herself from the product when discussing it.

CIRCUS OF BOOKS: Gay Culture In West Hollywood
source: Netflix

For example when explaining the almost-unbelievable tale of how she and Barry became involved in producing homoerotic pornographic films with Jeff Stryker – one of the most well known gay porn stars in America at the time – she is at pains to point out they never actually watched the films. They just knew they would sell well. This raises a pertinent question that, unfortunately, is never entirely addressed and feels like something of a missed opportunity – if Karen experienced some mix of shame and discomfort in selling gay pornography, why did she do it for over 30 years?

God Must Be Punishing Me

Aside from the intimate views of the Mason family, we are treated to a series of interviews from both customers and former employees who add more background and context to the bookshop’s existence: free from the kind of gosh-really abashment of Barry, and the quietly disapproving murmurs of Karen, Circus of Books is allowed to open up to the wonderful variety of colourful characters who were part of the store: Alaska, a drag queen and former employee, laughs with glee as they tell stories of illicit sexual encounters between the aisles, while one of Rachel Mason‘s friends fully admits he had sex in the attic of the store. Other customers discuss the kind of pornography they found, or the interactions they had with others like them – of which some must have been the first interactions of that kind for them. It’s heartwarming and allows us to see how vital Circus of Books was to that community, which further contrasts the disparity between the Mason family and the business they were in. At this point it would have become frustrating to watch Circus of Books dance around this obvious contrast, and perhaps have sunk the movie itself, but for a late act revelation that changes the game.

Rachel Mason interviews both of her brothers Josh and Micah throughout to capture their experience of growing up oblivious to this cultural influence their parents were having. Micah, to begin with, is by the far the more prominent of the two interviewees – but the reason for this becomes apparent later on when Josh is revealed to be gay himself. This moment creates a fascinating implosion of the separate lives Karen and Barry live. ‘It goes against my core values’ Karen admits at one point, also stating she believed ‘God must be punishing me’ for operating a gay bookstore. This is the culmination of what was hinted throughout Circus of Books: Karen’s businesslike demeanour belied her religious influences on her opinion of homosexuality. While she was able to put that to one side for the sake of her business, it’s not the same when it hits close to home.

CIRCUS OF BOOKS: Gay Culture In West Hollywood
source: Netflix

‘Everything about the business was really in support of the family,’ Josh points out. ‘The ‘gay’ part of it fell on the ‘business’ side of that mental dividing line’. It’s an astute observation and opens up a window into a critique of a system whereby the owners of a business profited from a venture they were likely prejudiced against. This is, again, a nimble dance around what could have been the real meat of the story. Understandably, though, Rachel Mason opts for a more measured approach and towards the end Circus of Books really comes into its own when it dovetails its two components together for the finale. Karen and Barry join – and eventually become key members of – PFLAG (Parents & Friends of Lesbians and Gays). In a heartwarming turnabout, the two parts of their lives intersect and it’s a moment of pure joy which lingers to the end.

Circus of Books: Conclusion

Although it skirts some interesting details and at times pulls its punches when examining the motives of its protagonists, Circus of Books turns into a blissfully heartwarming, joyful examination of the gay culture in West Hollywood and of the need for acceptance and understanding. It shows a redemption and a bridge built between a mother and son, a shop owner and the community she caters to. In these troubling times, its message is as pure and necessary as ever.

The films charts Circus of Books’ varying fortunes over the past 30 years. How do you think stores like this contribute to gay culture and communities, and how has this changed? Let us know in the comments below!

Circus of Books is available to stream on Netflix now.

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