The new Netflix documentary Circus of Books tells the story of a historic gay porn shop and book store located in West Hollywood, CA, and focuses on the unassuming straight couple who ran it for over three decades. The film offers an entertaining look at the couple's history with the store, but who are the Circus of Books stars Karen and Barry Mason?
After deciding to change careers in the late 1970s (Karen was previously a journalist while Barry was a film special effects engineer and inventor) the two conservative Jewish parents scored a gig delivering Hustler magazines, and gay porn mags owned by Hustler, to bookstores around Los Angeles County. One of their clients was a shop in West Hollywood called Book Circus that catered to the gay community. The owners of Book Circus couldn't keep up with their rent — even though their business was successful — and the Masons decided to take over the store in 1982. They renamed it Circus of Books and soon expanded the store's selection of gay porn and paraphernalia, selling all sorts of sex toys and porn videos on VHS tapes (even producing their own gay porn movies) to go along with the existent magazine collection. The expansion led to new locations in two L.A. neighborhoods. The first was in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Sherman Oaks, while the next was in Silver Lake on the city's east side.
Throughout the '80s, the LGBTQ community faced a number of challenges. Homosexuality was not yet culturally accepted, gay pornography was legally dicey in many areas (Barry was even indicted for selling gay porn across state lines), and the AIDS crisis was ravaging the community. Through it all, the Masons acted as allies to the gay community, hiring HIV patients and ensuring that they had health insurance, and providing a safe space for the gay community to congregate. But as the culture became more accepting, the online porn industry grew, and hookup apps reduced the need for discreet cruising spots, the business at Circus of Books declined. The Sherman Oaks location closed in the '90s, the Silver Lake store shutdown in 2016, and finally in 2019, the original West Hollywood store closed for good. "It’s not at all bittersweet," Karen told The LAnd. "When we started this business, when we took it over, it really played a role, and it doesn’t meet the same need anymore at all, which is fine, really."
Today, the Masons are grandparents. They're not sitting on their hands, however, as the two are still landlords. The current sex shop that operates in the original Circus of Books space, Chi Chi LaRue's Circus, is a tenant of the Masons, according to Los Angeles Magazine.
The Masons may be out of the gay porn business today, but their impact will continue to be felt for a long time.