The Circus Of Books — More Than A Family ‘Bookstore’

Karen and Barry Mason ran a gay pornographic bookstore, which was perhaps one of the largest and the only one of its kind in the 80s and 90s in the US. Soon, it also became the largest distributors of gay magazines and DVDs, until, as they said “the digital took over.”

August 2020 marked one year of closing of “Circus of Books” bookstore. Though it’s just a bookstore, the three children of the Masons were forbidden from talking about their family business. When asked about what their parents did, their would always be the same, “they run a bookstore.”

It’s because the Masons knew that it was more than just that — a bookstore.

Karen and Barry Mason ran a gay pornographic bookstore, which was perhaps one of the largest and the only one of its kind in the 80s and 90s in the US. Soon, it also became the largest distributors of gay magazines and DVDs, until, as they said “the digital took over.”

Book Circus Becomes Circus of Books

The Masons acquired the “Book Circus,” a shop that’d have closed down because the owner wasn’t paying rent on time and got himself involved in the cocaine trade. Barry recalls, in the 2019 Netflix documentary “Circus of Books,” made by the Masons’ daughter Rachel Mason, that this rebranding was cost-effective, as they just brought the latter half of the signage board to the front and paid only for “of.” 

It could be called jugaad in the Indian sense of innovation, but Barry was a real creative genius. He had invented a safety device for a dialysis machine, whose rights the couple sold to a medical-equipment manufacturer, and had created special effects for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Karen and Barry met the first time in a not-so-happening party. Half a year later they’re married. Karen, a deeply religious Hebrew, and a former journalist, was at complete odds with Barry, a person whose “default state,” as described by their children, was happy.

The talented Jewish duo, with three children now, were in a fix in the 80s, and were “looking for a stable income source.”

Karen sees a classified by a famous producer of sexually explicit magazines, mostly gay porno, Larry Flynt. Flynt was looking for a distributor, the advert read, and he’ll make anyone who would meet these two conditions: Buys 2,700 copies of the magazine (Hustler) and has a truck.

Karen and Barry gave it a shot. It’s then that they acquired the Book Circus. Circus of Books continued to enjoy a loyal following for decades, but closed its flagship store in West Hollywood down in August, 2019. Followed by its other franchise soon afterward because of nonviability of the business.

No Less Than a Subculture

A former employee, Alaska — stage name of a drag performer and artist Justin Andrew Honard — of the Circus of Books, says in the beginning of the documentary, “Here was this whole section called porn, P-O-R-N, you know.” You might be taken a back and feel that you didn’t sign up for this: watching a documentary about a bookstore running a gay pornographic shop.

However, it’s documentary about a daughter reintroducing to us the champions of gay rights, her parents. It’s about how a family, who’s in the business of selling gay pornography, journeyed from being a conservative to an out ally for the LGBTQ+ community. I wonder if many undergo this transition, which is why this journey was worth getting documented.

In the post-Internet age, I had all that I wanted to read or watch, as a new voyeur in the Gay World. But it’s India, not the US, and I expected that I’ll have to take careful steps when I want to read books on sex, gender and sexuality. But back then even in the “liberal” urban space like California there’s only one safe space to browse gay pornographic material without getting judged: Circus of Books.

“A purveyor of gourmet sexual material for every pervert in America.”

                                                                        — Bookstore’s loyal subscriber

Circus of Books was in its own way a subculture, which is why I think that it’s history should be considered as part of queer community’s aesthetics. It’s the “spot” where gays used to come for “cruising” — most of which happened behind the book stacks. Many of the previous employees reveal how they had their first “encounters” there. For all the right (or wrong) reasons, it’s the most vibrant location, or the “center of the universe in that area.”

For most LGBTQ+ population, Stonewall seems to be the time when protests for equality rights started, but it’s three years prior to Stonewall, when police arrested several same-sex people kissing, that the actual political unrest in the queer community began, which finally led to Stonewall. It’s “Black Cat.” Followed by the 1967 Police Brutality Protests.

Under such hostile environment how could a bookstore that sold gay pornographic materials survive.

A law suite was filed against Larry Flynt and Circus of Books was smut-raided, and Barry Mason was arrested under a sting operation by the FBI. Flynt’s case took its own course, but Barry was let go on a guilt-plea and a fine. But things weren’t going to be better too soon. Their third branch was closed down forcefully because it’s nearby a school; it’s as if Circus of Books will turn children gay.

However, the main retail outlet and one other franchise survived. And continued to charm its loyal fanbase and followers.

It made me fancy the logistics behind keeping the store booming with “fresh” materials for their readers to visit them time and again. But when I saw, in the documentary, Karen going to the Adult Novelty Manufacturers Expo (ANME) and yelling at a booth: “Is this gay?” I was convinced that no matter what she ensured that the latest “gay stuff” made its way into their shop.

Gay in Business Is Fine, But Gay at Home?

“I don’t have any problem with that,” Barry says, but given the religious tenacity of Karen one could tell that she’d have struggled with it.

Masons’ son Joshua comes out as gay, and a fair portion of the documentary also touches upon his growing up days and how even having approachable parents never helped him come out any sooner. He waited until he’s “sure” he must say it.

The story of a denial followed by a reluctant acceptance to a new-found courage to do something was clear on the faces of both Karen and Barry.

“Gay” was the bad word, Josh says. “I definitely perceived it was wrong.” Media called AIDS “The Gay Plague,” “The Gay Cancer” for “homosexuals” practice “frequent changing of sexual partners.”

Karen acknowledges that she thought that god was “punishing” her, and that she wasn’t “ready for a gay child.” Being an educated women didn’t help her address her own conventionalism when it came to her own son’s sexuality.

This is something that came up when I was reading Vivek Tejuja’s memoir (So Now You Know: Growing Up Gay in India) where he writes how “the dichotomy of it all had me confused when I came out. … Was it because it was her son and not a stranger? Did that matter the most? … Correction, her only son was gay.”

Irrespective of the time she took to come to terms with it, she’s sure that she loved her child. At least that’s certain, a constant, in their relationship.

Besides the personal there were newer challenges she and Barry faced when it came to running a bookstore with gay staff members during the AIDS epidemic of the 80s.

In the documentary, she tells the story of a deceased staff member. “Friday he was in office, Monday he died. Children were confused.” She recalls calling his mother, when she informed her, “Your son is sick.” “No, we kicked him out,” was the answer she got.

“Chuck the ‘gay part,’ and accept your kid.” She yells. Perhaps that would not be an ideal stage for acceptance but an acceptable reconciliation, if any, with your child at their vulnerable most. It’s passable as an attempt of caring.

The deceased parents’ sentiments were shared by a larger population of the US back then, needless to say that least has changed in India, too, when it comes to that. Soon the Messe Commission was established “to control people’s reading and viewing habits,” which loosely translated to, consequently, “controlling their sexual habits.”

Flynt notes, who had his own stints with the justice system, “Jail is the worst place to be in but fearing jail is worse.” It’s probably that fear, not of being jailed but the fear of being chided away, disowned and not loved that Joshua was overcompensating in everything he did as a kid. He says, “Realizing I was gay — keeping the secret from the world…,” and gets interrupted by Rachel midway who poses another question: “But did you ever know, see people who’re gay?” He replies that he “actively ignored” them and that he “filled all the gaps in the day’s activities — did everything to compensate the guilt,” along with the “pressure to be strong, to date, to be perfect.”

Toward the end, we see one chapter closing: the bookstore. We see Karen collecting all the archived magazines, DVDs and throwing them into the dustbin. But we do see a new beginning: the Masons started advocating for the Parents and Family of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and became ambassadors in bringing a change in the behavior toward queer people in the society.

“Parents are a [sic] really smart people for a small window of time,” Karen says with a sly smile. But this language of grief is nothing compared to that of a bookstore, an agency that helped many sail through their own marginalized lives in an hostile country. A bookstore that remained for a long time, their home was their only window toward a world they only dreamt of. Which is why it doesn’t matter if Karena and Barry will remain relevant as parents, but they’ll remain etched in the memory of queer culture as agents of that change that we desire.

About the author

Saurabh Sharma

Saurabh is working as a writer in a research and advisory IT consultancy firm. He frequently writes about gender and sexuality, and book reviews on an array of platforms.
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