My wife and I had to downsize our library when we moved to Los Angeles in 2015. A place nearby agreed to take a few boxes and I arrived at Circus of Books without the slightest clue I was walking into LA queer history. The store has since closed, but a new documentary, Circus of Books, explores its 33-year life and the story of its unlikely proprietors, Karen and Barry Mason, a straight and straight-laced Jewish couple. The movie’s director is their daughter Rachel, a multi-disciplinary artist who made a previous film in 2013, The Lives of Hamilton Fish.
At the core of Circus of Books are the intimately nuclear Masons, beyond which circles the looser family of the store’s employees, and finally the larger tribe of LA’s gay men and LGBTQ+ people who shopped, cruised, and found community at the store. The narrative structure is a chiasmus: in the first half of the film the bookstore is thriving while Josh, the youngest Mason, is painfully closeted. At the height of the shop’s success is the AIDS crisis. Then as the film winds down the internet is making the business obsolete and Josh is coming out to his parents. The documentary becomes an act of celebration and mourning.
Using old family photos, home movies, archival photographs, and interviews with her parents and other key players, Rachel tells the story of the family business. Karen and Barry start selling porn because they need an income, and Larry Flynt, who was just starting Hustler, needed distributors. Flynt acquires several major gay titles, including the magazine Blue Boy, founded in 1974 with a focus on gay lifestyle and entertainment, and the Masons find that Los Angeles is a strong market. Demand steers them ever deeper into gay content including pornographic magazines and videos, and Circus of Books unexpectedly evolves into a safe space for gay men especially and for queer people in general, a safety ironically unavailable to Josh at home. He lives in fear of his sexuality, while at the store men explore theirs, cruising in the stacks and having sex behind the shop in what was dubbed Vaseline Alley. Despite the sadness of Josh’s youth, the Mason’s matter-of-fact and at times oblivious approach to their business (in their eyes they could have as easily been selling widgets) makes for a truly funny movie. The film features wonderful reminiscences by former staff describing the store’s communal warmth and charged sexual atmosphere. One man recalls losing his virginity in the upstairs storeroom.
The 1980s were a dangerous time to be gay in America, and the movie’s dramatic tension far exceeds what might be expected from a documentary about a neighborhood bookstore. The film traces the larger context of the nation’s vague obscenity laws, under which gay porn was illegal. Just as Prohibition made money for speakeasies, the ’80s are boom times for the Masons, who open a second location in Silver Lake where sales quickly outstrip the original West Hollywood shop.
Chronicling this period, the film weaves together vintage footage of gay porn, stern government officials on television, and additional interviews with the Masons as they describe how they began producing their own porn films (Barry laughingly remarks that merely being honest and trustworthy made them successful producers). As we see original footage of government agents raiding the store and carrying out box after box of contraband, the tenor shifts from goofball comedy to nerve-wracking horror with felony charges looming.
Through their daughter’s eyes, we watch Barry and Karen struggle not only with the U.S. government, but with the AIDS crisis. Barry visits dying employees, most of them in their 20s and 30s, and we watch Karen field a call from a worker’s long-estranged mother (this scene made me wonder if it was a re-enactment—why would such a moment have been filmed at the time?). In his famous essay “Mourning and Militancy”(1989) the scholar and AIDS activist Douglas Crimp reflects on the turn to safe sex under the cloud of AIDS: “Alongside the dismal toll of death, what many of us have lost is a culture of sexual possibility: back rooms, tea rooms, bookstores, movie houses, and baths; the trucks, the pier, the ramble, the dunes.” The inclusion of bookstores in Crimp’s list speaks to the importance of places like Circus of Books, where gay men could find not just each other, not just sex, but also respite from the surrounding hostility. The documentary reveals the store as a locus for the essential activity of self-love, and through the power of pornographic fantasy, a bastion of precisely those vanished sexual adventures enumerated by Crimp. Rachel was a child during the heyday of Circus of Books, but she uses the documentary to look back at the historical function of gay porn not merely as a turn-on, but as one of the only sources of positive gay imagery available. Testimonies of former employees and customers demonstrate the liberating power of pornography as sexual avowal.
Despite all the queer people the Masons nurtured, when Josh comes home from college to tell his parents he is gay, Karen feels she is being punished by god (Barry is not troubled by his son’s sexuality). Among the film’s most difficult moments is a frank conversation between Rachel and Josh, now grown-up. Rachel’s eyes are wet, and Josh appears constricted as he recollects the suffering he seems not to have left behind.
Karen’s schism between the shop and her son illuminates the difference between tolerance and love. The Masons never operated Circus of Books out of a desire to liberate the hearts and bodies of queer Angelinos. The store was a job, one they took pains to keep secret from their children and friends (though honestly, everybody had to have known). But to love, to actively embrace, is a different matter entirely, and we see Karen transform herself after Josh comes out. By the end of the movie Karen and Barry have exited the closet along with their son, they are activists and trained facilitators with PFLAG, and, as they lead the PFLAG section of the LA Pride parade, the legacy of their store fully dovetails with their love for their son.