CIRCUS OF BOOKS: A Wholesome Porn Family Adventure

By C.J. Hirschfield

Dildoes and devotion; porno and piety.

Oy gevalt. How to rationalize living in a daily mashup of these very different worlds is at the heart of the wonderful new documentary Circus of Books, premiering on Netflix April 22.

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Barry and Karen Mason.  Photo courtesy of Netflix/Huffpost/Getty

Karen and Barry Mason are a nice couple who met at a Jewish singles’ event, went on to have three children and live a very conventional (and religious) life in Los Angeles, but their family business—a hard-core gay porn store–was anything but. The film is directed by the couple’s daughter Rachel Mason, who is not afraid to let familial emotions come through in the telling, and the film is better for it.

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Director Rachel Mason at the Tribeca Film Festival Premiere

Circus of Books tells two very interesting stories; one historical, and one personal, and it’s Mason’s skillful direction that weaves them together. Included are interviews with a gay porn star, a producer of the films, loyal and long-term bookstore employees and patrons, as well as the couples’ three children. Former Hustler Magazine publisher and First Amendment advocate Larry Flynt even makes an appearance.

The first narrative focuses on the young couple, and how their initial West Hollywood-based  business came to be, how and why it prospered, and its role in the 1980’s burgeoning gay liberation movement.

It was a newspaper ad from Hustler publisher Flynt seeking distributors that first caught the attention of the couple, whose previous careers included journalism for her and film special effects/inventor for him. As they explain it, they were driven to find a way to make a living as they were starting their family, and Flynt’s product was flying off the shelves.

Screen Shot 2020-04-24 at 6.08.45 PM.pngRealizing that having their own brick and mortar location would be more profitable, they opened Circle of Books in the same building that was formerly the New Faces bar, where in 1966 demonstrations were held to protest the arrest of men caught kissing each other nearly three years before the better-documented Stonewall uprising in New York.

MV5BZmZiNDE5OGMtYzgwNy00N2VlLWJlMDktMjg0OWEwOTc5MTQ1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzQzNDA2NDI@._V1_.jpgIn 1982, Circus of Books became a safe place for gays to find other gays, and at one point, the Masons became the biggest distributor of hardcore gay porn in L.A. This distinction was not without its dangers: under Reagan’s anti-porn administration, the FBI raided the establishment, with Barry facing jail time and a huge fine for distributing porn over state lines. At the same time, the AIDS epidemic was ravaging the community, as well as the store’s gay employees.

“We bore witness to the epidemic without being part of it,” says Karen. “It was a horrible, horrible time.”

The point is made many times in the film that Karen would certainly have preferred to own another type of business, one that better reflected her own religious values, and that didn’t bring her shame. The stress was incredible.

_110077203_family976549.jpgAnd as for the kids? “We didn’t want them to know what we did at all,” says Karen, and for years this secret held.  The official answer when asked about the family business was “We ran a bookstore.”

They presented as the perfect family; with Karen as a working mother with three kids, and father Barry the easygoing, sunny dad.

The second narrative, and the real heart of the film, focuses on the struggle that the strong- willed and devout Karen goes through when her college-aged son Josh comes out to the family as gay. The irony is lost on no one. “Up to then, (the business) existed outside of my core values, but I was not prepared to have a gay child,“ she says, noting that homosexuality is an abomination in her conservative religious practice.

Screen Shot 2020-04-24 at 5.55.55 PM.pngHer complicated journey to re-think her theology and where it leads her is an inspirational example of a loving family’s resilience and grace.

The Circle of Books storefront is now gone, due in no small part to the advent of the internet and the cornucopia of options it offers, but the documentary serves as a reminder of a very special time and place in history, where a civil rights movement began.

“Pornography attacks the family,” says a County Prosecutor in Ohio during a Republican administration’s assault on establishments such as the Mason’s.

Karen’s perspective on porn and family? “It was the videos that sent you to college,” she tells her three grown children. Only the indomitable team of Karen and Barry could make porn wholesome– and Circus of Books celebrates their unique and ultimately moving story of love and liberation.

Follow the movie’s activities and events on the Facebook page.

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C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.

Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.

C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”

As the Masons prepared to close Circus of Books, Catherine G. Wagley interviewed Karen, Barry and Rachel for theLAnd.

Visit the reopened and reimagined Circus of Books store website for 18 years and over.

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