Press "Enter" to skip to content

‘Circus of Books:’ The lovely Jewish couple who ran the largest gay porn store in the nation

Imagine if you discovered that the “bookstore” your heterosexual parents owned was the biggest gay porno shop in the U.S. at one point in time.

For Rachel Mason, this unlikely truth was her reality.

The shop named “Circus of Books,” which is also the title of its Netflix documentary film, had two locations in the West Hollywood Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles at the height of its operation. The owners, Karen and Barry Mason, sat down with Rachel, who directed the film, after closing down the shop they owned for 37 years.

A business in gay porn was not originally part of the plan for this modest Jewish couple. Karen was set to become a journalist, and Barry was working on a motion image project.

After answering a newspaper ad by publisher Larry Flynt, which was a desperate solution for the couple, Karen and Barry got into the business of book distribution. The couple took over an ill-operated shop called “Book Circus” and renamed the store, keeping the business a secret from their friends and family, including their kids.

What the couple didn’t realize is that this temporary solution eventually turned into a landmark for the LGBTQ+ community.

Throughout the documentary, Rachel presents Karen and Barry’s journey in a very intimate way. She didn’t shy away from getting in front of the camera to share her perspective.

While running the business, Karen and Barry witnessed the AIDS epidemic and battled against censorship.

While the couple treated the sex shop more or less like a retail store with gay-oriented products, they were there for many gay men who had lost their lives to AIDS. To Karen and Barry, it wasn’t about sexuality but simply humanity.

“We lost so many of our employees and nice people. I mean, really nice people,” Barry said as he recalled his experience of visiting his employees on their deathbeds. “I was just so surprised that the parents could be so bad to their children. And I didn’t think about the gay part of it. It was just their children.”

Karen remembered working with an employee right before he passed away and taking a phone call from his mother.

“She wasn’t in touch with him during that period, and I think she was feeling bad. I don’t know what she wanted from me, but she should’ve visited him,” Karen said. “It was a real, real tragedy … I think what we did was small human kindnesses, in a very small way.”

After Ronald Regan’s administration picked the battle against pornography in the ’80s, Circus of Books was caught in an FBI sting operation for transporting obscenity, and Barry was on the path to a federal felony. The prolonged legal battle was only resolved after Bill Clinton became the president, who had a different attitude toward obscenity.

When Josh Mason, Karen and Barry’s son, came out as gay on a Post-It note, Barry was okay with Josh’s sexuality. However, Karen would have a hard time accepting the fact.

“God must be punishing me,” was Karen’s first reaction, as she was, and is still, a very religious person. Now, both she and her husband are leading members of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), a national peer support and educational group for the LGBTQ+ community in their region.

“Upon that point, [homosexuality] had just existed somewhere outside any of my core values … I was fine with anybody who was gay as far as I was concerned, but I really wasn’t prepared to have a gay child,” Karen said. “When it came to my own son, I realized that I had some thoughts about gay people that needed to change.”

Copyright © 2020, The Scout, Bradley University. All rights reserved.
The Scout is published by members of the student body of Bradley University. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University.