Queer filmmaker/performance artist Rachel Mason gets personal with her new documentary “Circus of Books” (Netflix/Future Clown), debuting on Netflix in late April 2020. The daughter of Karen and Barry Mason, the straight, married couple who owned and operated the titular legendary XXX adult emporium in WeHo (shuttered in early 2018) and a short-lived Silverlake location, Rachel has crafted a revelatory, warts and all family portrait, that is equally emotional and informative.
Journalist Karen and movie special effects designer/inventor (and UCLA classmate of Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek) Barry, the unlikely proprietors of Circus of Books, didn’t set out to become porn moguls, “purveyors of gourmet sexual materials”, but you know what they say about the best laid plans. As they tell it, they thought it would be a temporary thing.
As was to be expected, there was also a degree of secrecy involved about their line of work. They didn’t talk about the family business in the family or with friends. The sanctioned answer to what they did for employment was, “we own a bookstore”. The more thorough answer is that it was a “hardcore, gay adult business” complete with cruising in the stacks, and a “Vaseline alley” hook-up area in the alley behind the store.
When an opportunity to become a distributor of Larry Flynt’s notorious materials, including gay porn publications such as “Blueboy”, “Honcho” and “Mandate”, presented itself, Barry took the job. Shortly thereafter, one of the businesses to which Barry made deliveries was in need of a new tenant and Circus of Books was born, with Karen and Barry as owners. With such a venture, came all sorts of new experiences, including becoming familiar with both the merchandise, such as publications, videos and sex toys. In one scene, adult Rachel accompanies Karen to an adult products expo. Before long, the Masons became involved in the production of gay adult movies such as “Stryker Force”, starring Jeff Stryker, and then became the biggest distributors of gay films in the US
The lucrative, but polarizing, market led to an FBI sting operation during the extremely conservative Reagan era. At the same time, they bore witness to the AIDS epidemic, as many of their employees and customers were dying. Ultimately, it was the impact of internet which had the longest lasting effect. Still profitable but not sustainable, the Masons made the difficult decision to close after 30 years.
Mason populated her film with interview subjects that are vast and varied. In addition to Karen, Barry, and Rachel’s brothers Joshua and Micah, there is Karen’s childhood friend Ellen Winer, LGBT rights activist Alexei Romanoff, magazine publisher Billy Miller, former employees Alaska (of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame), Fernando Aguilar and Freddie Bercovitz, some customers, and immediately recognizable names such as Flynt and Stryker.
Mason has crammed a lot under the big top of her movie, some of which borders on being unfocused and self-indulgent. However, the sections about her brother Joshua’s coming out and Karen’s response due to her conservative religious background, are extremely moving and powerful. Rating: B-
Gregg Shapiro is the author of Fifty Degrees (Seven Kitchens, 2016), selected by Ching-In Chen as co-winner of the Robin Becker Chapbook Prize. Other books by Shapiro include the short story collections How to Whistle (Lethe Press, 2016) and Lincoln Avenue (Squares and Rebels Press, 2014), the chapbook GREGG SHAPIRO: 77 (Souvenir Spoon Press, 2012), and the poetry collection Protection (Gival Press, 2008).
He has work forthcoming in the anthology Reading Queer: Poetry in a Time of Chaos (Anhinga Press, 2018). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBT and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.