Metro Weekly

‘Circus of Books’ explores how a nice, straight Jewish couple erected a mecca of gay porn

Netflix documentary wonderfully showcases Karen and Barry Mason, who created an L.A. erotica icon

circus of books, gay, porn, erotica, documentary

Circus of Books

Karen and Barry Mason raised their three kids in 1970s L.A. always making a strict point of never discussing the family business at home. Consequently, little Rachel, Micah, and Josh had no idea their seemingly strait-laced mom and dad owned and operated Circus of Books, West Hollywood’s most famous gay porn shop. Now the whole family is talking in Rachel Mason’s sharply edited, funny, heartfelt documentary Circus of Books (★★★★☆), executive produced by Ryan Murphy and debuting April 22 on Netflix.

A frank account of the store’s fabulous life as the Boystown hot spot for gay erotica fans, the film also serves as a winning portrait of the unconventional married owners, who met in the sixties at a party for Jewish singles and just happened into the porn industry.

Good cop/bad cop duo Barry and Karen reveal themselves as natural storytellers with an endearing comic rhythm honed over decades of marriage. The film gracefully weaves the strange but true family history into an insightful appraisal of the role XXX-rated media has played in queer culture, health, and progress over the past fifty years.

The deep dive should touch upon personal history for viewers who might vividly recall — or can neither confirm nor deny recalling — the store’s legendary location at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and La Jolla Avenue.

Firsthand testimony from former customers and employees, including Drag Race‘s unerringly droll Alaska, paint a mostly rosy picture of a sex-positive oasis where generations of gays who came seeking Honcho and Mandate, and any of thousands of adult video titles, also found their peers.

Circus of Books

That’s not all they found. The store stocked some serious queer literature and activist publications alongside its toys, lubes, and dildos. Footage of the gayborhood when it was still known locally as Boystown accompanies fond “I lost my virginity” stories about the infamous cruising strip Vaseline Alley that ran the length of the block directly behind the shop.

The movie misses an opportunity by forgoing substantial mention of LGBTQ bookstores and porn shops in other towns, similarly serving as beacons of community. But, impressively, in its tight 86-minute running-time, Circus of Books does cover the store building’s little-known, pre-Stonewall gay civil rights history, as well as the devastating AIDS era, in a sequence commemorating employees and friends lost to the disease. Most dramatically, the movie documents the store’s present-day petering out in the age of Pornhub and Grindr.

Theirs is “an aging, ailing business,” says Karen, leading the camera on a sweetly matter-of-fact tour past shelves of old DVDs with titles like Don’t Drop the Soap and Stryker Force. That’s Stryker as in Jeff Stryker, the ultimate gay adult movie star, who brings a latter-day Burt Reynolds energy to his engaging appearances here, reminiscing about the good old days when the Masons dipped their toes into producing and distributing their own gay porn titles.

He praises Karen and Barry as a rarity in the adult film industry — “good, honest, trustworthy people,” elements of character that shine through plainly in this loving look at a landmark.

Circus of Books releases Wednesday, April 22 for streaming globally on Netflix. Visit www.netflix.com.

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André Hereford covers arts and entertainment for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at ahereford@metroweekly.com. Follow him on Twitter at @here4andre.

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