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How a LGBT Artist Made a Documentary About Her Straight Parents and Their Gay Adult Bookstore

Netflix’s charming, poignant ‘Circus of Books’ tells the story of Karen and Barry Mason, who gave gay men a safe space during a homophobic era. Rachel Mason talks about honoring that store — and her mom’s own struggles with intolerance

Karen and Barry Mason seem like a sweet, mild-mannered older couple. Earlier in their lives, she was a journalist and he was an inventor, but in the early 1980s as they were raising three children in Southern California, they stumbled into a more lucrative proposition: running an adult bookstore that catered to a gay male clientele. A devout Jew, Karen was never entirely comfortable with homosexuality — her religious upbringing taught her that it was a sin — but she and Barry, both straight, made Circus of Books not just a West Hollywood success but a place for gay men, who felt especially persecuted during the Reagan years, to feel welcome. Selling magazines, videos, cock rings and other paraphernalia, the store provided a refuge and a hook-up spot — an oasis before the internet gave people the chance to find porn and partners online. 

Growing up, Rachel Mason always wondered what her parents did. The only daughter of Karen and Barry, she along with her brothers was shielded from Mom and Dad’s work. But, eventually, the kids began to piece it together — as well as discover that their folks briefly dabbled in gay porn distribution. An artist and filmmaker, Rachel was curious what had prompted her buttoned-down parents to get into a world they knew nothing about. Her mom insisted there wasn’t a movie to be made about people as ho-hum as her and Barry. Rachel disagreed.

The documentary Circus of Books proves that Rachel’s instincts were correct. Premiering on Netflix today, the film is a warm, affectionate love letter to both the store — the principal West Hollywood spot closed last year, with two other branches having closed earlier — and her parents. Initially, Circus of Books has the makings of a wacky fish-out-of-water comedy — this straight Leave It to Beaver couple made money off gay porn! — but Rachel Mason’s movie digs deeper, examining the store’s cultural importance and also how her brother Josh’s coming out sent Karen spiraling. (As much as she and Barry worked among gay people, she never entirely reconciled her latent homophobic feelings until Josh’s announcement.) This is a personal film with a sense of history and also some real poignancy. 

When I spoke by phone to Rachel in early April, L.A. was just beginning to become accustomed to the reality of the COVID-19 lockdown. The stay-at-home order seemed particularly ironic in light of our conversation about a dearly departed bookstore that, in its heyday, had been a place of community and togetherness. But with shrinking sales and less need for such a spot in the age of Grindr, Circus of Books had outlived its usefulness for the people who’d once come to depend on its sanctuary. Rachel, who’s 40 and says, “I think I’ve been every letter of the LGBT rainbow, except for T,” has been especially gratified that her movie, which screened at Outfest and Tribeca, hasn’t resonated with only gay audiences. “I think that’s the struggle of all gay people and all people in the LGBT space,” she tells me. “How do we reconcile our relationships with the people outside of the community, and how do they reconcile their relationships with us?”

We talked a little about that, but I was also interested in how her mother dealt with her sexuality — something that isn’t discussed in the documentary. Along the way, we also chatted about coming to understand your parents as people, the generational divide among gay men and why she’s not all that interested in porn — even though she’s romantically involved with porn actor Buck Angel.

In some ways, you got to do in this film something that I think a lot of us would love to do, which is figure out, “Who exactly are my parents as people? Who are they outside of being mom and dad?”
That’s an on-going question that I’ve had. Their line of work was so secretive and so unusual. I’ve always been the one in my family that was the most heavily judged for being unconventional. I’m the artist. I’m the weirdo. I’m the one who broke all the rules. 

My mom has always dismissed my work as being unrealistic: “Wow, you really don’t know what you’re doing” or “I have a regular nine-to-five job. Can’t you see I’m busy?” And I think that [this film] is sort of me saying, “Well, what is your nine-to-five job? What are you doing?” I never realized I might have been purposely doing what you just asked, but I think I have been doing that. I’m turning the camera on them to unearth more about them than I ever learned from anything they told me.

Early on, your mom seems somewhat resistant to being the subject of a documentary —
Resistant. That’s an understatement. [laughs]

So, how did you get her to acquiesce?
What you don’t see is that, although she’s the definition of strong-willed, I’m just as strong-willed. My thing is, “Look, I’m going to do this. I’m going to show up, and I’m going to keep showing up. And you can say all you want, but I’m pretty much going to do this.” And her acquiescing, as you say, was more that I just kept showing up. 

I felt a strong sense that the actual substance of the film — and this could have been what kept me going and didn’t lead me to give up — was just that she had done something historic. I knew that this needed to get documented — I knew from a world of gay people that understand the value of this story, and I’m part of the culture that she isn’t really part of. She was on the business side, but she didn’t understand the people. She wasn’t friends with all these people. This is my peer group and my friends and my community. So I had a strong-willed sense of, “Look, I know who’s going to need this film. And you might not, but I do.”

In some ways, I’m surprised the film has had a much wider audience than the community I initially expected, which was obviously the LBGT world. I figured that’s who this film was for. I think the fact that I dug so deep into the family side — and my mom’s story and her conflict — is actually what, ironically, led this film to have a much bigger audience. That’s the struggle of all gay people and all people in the LGBT space: How do we reconcile our relationships with the people outside of the community, and how do they reconcile their relationships with us? And so, I think by doing that, by probing deeper into my mom’s part of the story, the film became a much bigger story about what the struggle is for everybody in this community. 

We get the sense that for you and your brothers, it was a slow dawning of what exactly Circus of Books was. So, as a teenager, what did you think your folks did?
I knew that they did a lot of very boring stuff with invoices and boxes and packaging. Every day, my mom made sure things were delivered, made sure people got paid. It’s very not glamorous. I didn’t see my parents being on set [of their porn films]. I didn’t see them have interesting friends. If ever we went to the store, we were told, “Do not go into the over-18 section,” which of course made us curious about the over-18 section. I thought every store in the world must have an over-18 section — I really did think that. And so it was that sense of, like, “Well, okay, I guess we can’t go into the adult side because it’s for grownups.”

I had friends in Hollywood whose parents were rock stars, dancers, musicians, artists — really cool parents who I was super jealous of. My friends were in showbiz, and I completely didn’t have that experience. I figured my parents had a really boring job of running a store — and that store was really boring, except for the employees, who I thought were the most charming, wonderful, fascinating people.

I didn’t really even know that they were all gay — I just really fell in love with them. So I became friends with pretty much anyone that worked at that store. I don’t know if it was just my early impulse and attraction to gay culture, without fully even knowing it, but I remember thinking they were funny, and I liked how they talked. And in the film, I talk about the realization that many of them would be dying all around me — and then my mom would just say, “Well, yeah, actually, he died.” And then this other person that was working in the back, “Oh, well, he just died, too.” 

I would feel what I recognize now is some kind of trauma, but you don’t know it as a kid — you just get used to it. “Okay, well, I guess people just die a lot” — I didn’t realize that, no, you’re witnessing a lot of these super young gay men die. That’s what I only as an adult recognized. I wanted to memorialize that in the film — and that what [my parents] did was provide this very safe space, and maybe even a happy space, for these guys at the most terrible moments of their lives.

For lots of parents, the birds-and-bees conversation is a tough one. Your parents ran an adult bookstore. So was “the talk” easier for your folks because of that? And was it around the same time they told you what the bookstore was?
They worked so hard to shield us. Their panic, I realize now, was very justified — their panic was that somebody in our school would find out what our parents did, and then we wouldn’t be allowed to have play dates. We wouldn’t be allowed to be on the soccer team. We might not be allowed to go to the synagogue. All the different things that, once you find out the Masons are in porn, you’re not going to want your kids around them. They were so actively shielding us from what their work was, when it came time to actually tell us the reality of sex, they avoided it completely. We never had that conversation about the birds and the bees. I don’t ever recall any of us having it with them.

They never told us what they did. But I was friends with all the gay kids in my school — those were my people — and my friends went to the store. So my friends were telling me, “Rachel, we drive from the Valley to go to Circus of Books. That is your parents’ store? It’s a porn store.” And I had to say to [my parents], “Is this really what you guys are doing?” And I remember my mom kind of downplaying it: “Look, the store has magazines in it, too. It also has books. It’s not just an adult store.” My mom always used the word “adult.” Never used the word “porn.” I never heard her say that.

And she still hasn’t, right? She doesn’t in the movie.
The only time I ever heard her say the word “porn” was literally two months ago. We were interviewed by the BBC, and she sits down and says, “Well, I guess you didn’t expect me to be a pornographer, did you?” And I was like, “Wow, you finally said it! It only took me making this film and having it screened all over the world, and have audiences applaud and make you feel like this is an actual okay thing.” [Laughs]

As a lapsed Catholic, I understand how guilt and shame are a part of religion. It seems like your mom’s faith instilled a certain amount of embarrassment in her about how she made her living.
This is really the heart of the movie, actually. It’s not so much about gay porn — it’s about my mom’s religious struggle. I was raised in a very conservative Jewish synagogue, which is almost identical, if you look at the language, to Catholicism on the specific subject of homosexuality — [they consider it] a sin. And people don’t realize — I guess because you hear about the super liberal Jews — that the Jewish religion on the conservative arm is as homophobic as all the others. It’s that line in the Bible that says, “Thou shalt not lie down with another man.” 

My mom completely was one of those people that took the Bible at face value. She still does to some extent, although she’s now found her way toward a more reformed branch of Judaism, which is a more open-minded liberal branch that accepts and embraces gay people. Ironically, her own morals were completely in line with the Christian right wing that were trying to condemn and shut down the store.

When my brother came out, for her, it was God punishing her for owning the business. And she really, in her heart, totally believed that, because she is a deeply religious person. Religious people just jump to those conclusions very quickly. And it may sound unbelievable if you’re not religious, like me. But I had to reconcile how religious she really was: How do you even possibly do this thing that you believe is completely antithetical to your religion if you’re a devout believer? So, the center of the film is my mom’s homophobia that she overcame — her overcoming that is the redemption of the film.

In an interview you gave to Queerty, you suggested that you identify as pansexual. This doesn’t come up in the movie — how did your mom react to your sexuality?
Well, I’ve identified a few different ways over my life. I think I’ve been every letter of the LGBT rainbow, except for T, in my life, because I’m somebody that’s always been open to exploring and being in love with the people that I fall in love with. But, also, I think one of the reasons that I never really had that conversation with my parents is because I was always a nonconformist. And I think one of the things that happens with artists and people who are the weirdos and the freaks like me is we get a free pass. We’ve already done everything else completely wrong, by the time it came down to sexuality, that was the least of their concerns. 

Their bigger concern with me is, like, am I ever going to get a normal job? Am I ever going to live a normal lifestyle? My friends, they all look insane. When Josh came out as gay, part of the reason it was so shocking is because he was the normal kid in the family. I’d already taken a girl to prom, and by that point, they were like, “All right, well, Rachel’s not going to conform, so there’s no expectation of that.”

I will say I now think more that I’m bisexual. I think of that as being the better term, but I also think pansexual works for me, or queer also works. But I’m not completely crazy about labels. If there has been an overarching sexuality for me, it’s been that I haven’t pinned myself down to one over the course of my life. I never came out because I never had a specific identification that worked. But I always felt deeply a part of the queer and LGBT experience, and that it connects to me.

Rachel Mason

One of your parents’ employees mentions that your mom “wears the pants” in that relationship. In popular culture, it’s always the man in that role. Did it seem strange or novel to you that it was your mom?
That’s another understatement — the fact that she wears the pants. I mean, my dad is basically the most happy-go-lucky person on the planet. When my brother came out, he said, “I was thinking that dad was going to be the one that had the hard time of it, because you always hear about the dad throwing the gay son out.” And I just thought, “Wow, you really do always hear of the dad throwing the gay son out” — usually it’s the dad that’s the moral force of the family.

What it was like for me to have a dad that was so chill is that he’s the counterweight to my mom and all of her intensity. She’s so extreme and so over-the-top — part of the reason they had such a successful business is entirely her doing. I don’t think my dad had any real ambitions like she did to grow the business and do all the things that she knew would make it a success. But on the other hand, he tempers her — he’s the person that lets her know she’s being too outrageous.

When Josh came out, she had her moral panic, but his voice of reason is also the voice of true morality. A lot of times religious people are conflicted. My dad’s morality was just very abundantly clear: You do what you need to do to raise your kids, and what’s going to make them happy is what is needed, and you don’t need to judge them. He’s the Christ-like one of the two, if you were going to put a religious stamp on it.

I relate more to my dad, and I feel like he is a much more easy-going person. But I do think there is some bit of my work ethic and how driven I am that comes from my mom.

Do you believe your parents when they say that they never watched any of the porn they distributed? And have you watched any of it?
It’s really a funny thing to think about. I don’t know if “jaded” is the right word, but they were just used to it, to the point where there was no need to ever look at any of this stuff. And I believe it completely that my mom didn’t look at it. I sort of have a hard time thinking my dad hasn’t, because what they say is that there’s not a man on the planet who has not looked at porn. So there’s no way. But at the same time, he has no judgment about it and never felt the need to say, “Well, I never looked at this stuff.” 

I think that my dad was always mildly amused at the whole thing and had no problem with it. My mom likes to point out the fact that she’s never seen these things — it’s so Pollyanna.

Have I seen the movies? I will say I’m truly not a connoisseur of porn. I will admit that — even though the irony is that my partner is in the business and is one of the greatest people there is in the business. His name’s Buck Angel, and he makes amazing material. I just am not really… It could be similar to my parents. This was their business, so it just didn’t interest me all that much. But I think what they did was really great. And I think it was a really different moment in porn. It’s a rare thing when something is well-produced. 

You can look at their era as almost like the golden age of porn. You needed to actually know how to operate a camera, and have a set, and people had really funny, great, quirky titles. There was a lot of creativity in it, and it’s pretty amusing. And so on the surface, I really do admire people that were making porn — I think that they were mavericks. I think some people stumbled into it backwards. But on the whole, it took courage to be in these films and to make them. Especially being in gay porn. It was really very, very, very brave. 

You said earlier that you’ve been pleased that Circus of Books has found an audience outside the LGBT community. I wondered if that’s happened in much the same way that your parents’ business was successful — the fact that they’re a wholesome straight couple made them more “acceptable” to those who otherwise would be turned off or nervous.
There’s definitely very likely to be some truth to that. But I’d say that what more likely was the case was that, because they were just a straight, wholesome couple, they didn’t at all get sucked into anything on a social level. They didn’t go out and party with the people that were putting on the movies. There were drugs, and there was a lot of partying and drinking, and if you’re in the lifestyle, it’s harder to maintain a separation [between business and pleasure]. But they had a very clear “We clock in, we clock out, we do the numbers, we pay people, it is a business” [mentality]. There was just no room in their lives to get involved [with partying].

I see this in every world that I’ve been in, including filmmaking and being a musician and an artist — your friends are all around you, you have a lot of drama, you’re in this world. And the business decisions can be clouded by it. You wonder if you have the loyalty of different friends. And I think my parents were shielded from all of that because they were just, like, this domestic couple that went home and had nothing to do with that culture. And other people felt very comfortable working with them, because they never saw them out partying, and they never engaged with them in any other way.

Karen Mason

The movie’s also a great endorsement for PFLAG. How did your mom get involved? It seems like they’ve really helped her.
It was because of Josh. She had a religious meltdown I would say [after he came out]. Her world came to a shattering halt. Had I ever said, “Hey guys, I’m gay,” they probably wouldn’t have batted an eyelash, because I’d already put them through so much as an artist. Plus, I do believe men are judged more harshly than women when they come out as gay, especially in religious households. Why? Because the Bible only comes down on men — it never says anything anywhere about women. And my mom saw around her how many men died of AIDS — there weren’t women dropping like flies — so the view she had was just, “Oh my God, what a scary nightmare that Josh is gay.” 

For her, having to reconcile all her religious values came from that. It was a true moral crisis, because she was somebody that did everything “right” in terms of religion. My mom kept kosher, she went to synagogue. A lot of religious people really are rule-followers, and they think, “If I just do these things, things will work out for me.” And so, she had this crisis of faith because Josh is such a wonderful kid, and how could he possibly be gay? He’s like the most perfect golden child.

I don’t know how she found PFLAG, but I will say that PFLAG is the most amazing organization for people like my mom. My dad doesn’t need PFLAG — he came around instantly, and would never have had a problem with it. For people like my mom, though, PFLAG is a total lifeline. Her best friend in PFLAG is a very devout Catholic who had the exact same battle with her religion as my mom did with hers. It’s just a place for people that are trying to reconcile their cultural values with their kids being LGBT.

The movie suggests that, for a certain clientele during a particular time, Circus of Books was incredibly important — and maybe it’s not as crucial now when gay men have other ways of connecting. It’s almost as if the store’s closing is an indication that it’s not as needed as it once was, which ultimately is a good thing.
I will say there’s a real generational divide, and the generational divide is something that’s playing out right now. I’m 40, and I’m not of the generation that was completely, desperately in need of the store. By the time I was in my 20s and 30s, there was enough access to this whole life. The film is slanted toward gay men — there’s just no doubt about that. [The store] was a gay-male-central place. Of course, I have many friends that are lesbians, but the store was in the world of gay men, and that older generation were so deprived — I mean, really deprived and criminalized. There was a man that came in when the store was closing who was a Vietnam vet and elderly. And he said, “You know, had I not known of this store when I got out of the war, there would have been nowhere to go.”

When you look at the older generation and what it meant for them, it’s not even possible to think in terms of what we think of. The store was a fun, happening meeting place, but it was [also] a lifeline. These were people who, if they had never gone into a store like this, might have never known that their fantasies [weren’t] a perversion that was deemed as sick as pedophilia or incest. So their description of just the joy that they felt … I mean, they had tears in their eyes telling me these things. I teared up when many of these guys were talking, because I didn’t know the role of pornography. I didn’t know the role of [gay] magazines until I heard it from the older generation.

That divide is so stark because kids today, really, just on everyone’s phone you basically can hook up at any moment with anyone of any sexuality. And then within that, there’s subgenres where if you like twinks, or you like fat guys, or if you like bears, skinny guys, black guys, white guys, it’s all at your fingertips. And I wonder if these younger generations even have a clue what it really was like for the older generation.

Because there are so many ways to meet up virtually now, I wondered if there’s something wistful about not having a Circus of Books anymore. Obviously, the rampant homophobia nobody would miss — but that way to connect and have a community in that specific way is gone.
It’s so ironic that we’re having this film come out at this moment when we’re all sequestered. I have a lover — he happens to be in the community as well — and I just feel the sense of, like, “Wow, I’m lucky.” But I was never myself somebody that was obsessed with apps or meeting online. I love the legacy of gay culture. I love gay bars. I love gay dance clubs. I love gay events. I always appreciate that there’s a place where people show up and congregate.

It’s weird, though, because right now we’re all trying to figure out new ways to be social in this isolated moment. I wonder when we come out, are there going to be new community spaces that form?