Rachel Mason directed the Netflix documentary ‘Circus of Books,’ about the popular porn bookstore in Los Angeles. Tt turns out, she has a personal connection to the subject. Her parents, Barry and Karen Mason, were the proprietors of the one-time largest distributor of gay porn in the country. In this moving and engrossing documentary, she explores the beginning (and eventual ending) of the family business. Who would have thought that a nice Jewish couple were the owners? Barry answered Larry Flynt’s newspaper ad looking for secondary distributors for his Blueboy Magazine, and before they knew it, they were the owners of Book Circus in West Hollywood, taking over from its troubled business owners. And we see the business grow (eventually expanding to Silverlake and Sherman Oaks) But of course, the bookstore had other significance in the gay community – it was a place where gay people can interact with other gays, a haven where they can feel that they were not alone in the world. The back alley, dubbed Vaseline Alley, was a huge cruising spot as well. Porn was huge in the 80s and we see the couple move to production, eventually producing Matt Sterling productions fo Jeff Stryker films.
But there’s a deep personal story to the documentary as well. When their kids were growing up, they were very tight-lipped about the business, as they didn’t want to be a distraction for their kids growing up. Karen is pretty religious, and that dichotomy is explored here as well. They are a very sensitive couple, and some of the most touching scenes are when Barry would take about friends and colleagues that passed during the AIDS epidemic. And wouldn’t you know it, but they also have two queer children, and we see Karen go through hardship in accepting them, to being proud PFLAG members.
In a lot of ways, the book store is a perfect backdrop for how gay life has changed over the years, and with the internet moving content to online, there was no choice but to eventually close the store – we see the bittersweet ending at the end of the documentary. There is a silver lining, though – Chi Chi Laroue has rented the space and transformed it to ChiChi’s Circus, now a gallery/store space, still for queer content.