The iconic store originally opened as Book Circus in 1960. Not only did Book Circus specialize in hardcore porn that catered to both straight and mostly gay smut consumers, but it was also located in front of the notoriously cruisy gay spot known to this day as Vaseline Alley. Famous for not only hook-ups, car dates and quickies but also prostitution and drug dealing.
At the time Karen and Barry Mason were distributing Larry Flynt publications to stores. Book Circus became a major magazine distribution point for the Masons. The owner was their biggest customer from the very start. “Book Circus and Universal News on Las Palmas and Hollywood Boulevard each took 600 copies of the gay Blueboy magazine when it first came out,” said Mr. Mason. “I would load my truck for these two stops. Guys would be waiting for us at the door. They’d come out and help me bring them in. They’d rip open the box and buy them fresh out of the box. I wouldn’t even be done unloading them and they were already sold. Blueboy was the first mainstream gay magazine. The guys loved it.”
Business grew steadily throughout the 1980s. Then the Masons got swept up in a federal effort to shut down L.A.’s adult video distributors by targeting them in less liberal parts of the country. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, appointed in 1988 by then-President Ronald Reagan, spearheaded the effort, using the U.S. Postal Service to intercept packages from adult distributors. In 1990, a trio of California producers and distributors were indicted on charges of interstate transportation of obscene material after getting caught shipping VHS tapes.
The world famous adult bookstore has mostly been a source of nostalgia in recent years for many gay men who swung past the saloon doors in search of erotic movies, sex toys, lube, poppers or glass pipes throughout the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s when the store’s popularity was at its peak. It attracted straight porn lovers and many famous faces.
Then the owner of Book Circus stopped paying his bills and he stopped paying his rent. Mr. Mason learned from the manager of the store that the owner was deep in his addiction to cocaine, was stiffing everybody and had Mafia debts. Mason spoke to the manager of the building who informed him that the owner was about to be evicted. “The next day I got what I thought was a brilliant idea,” Mr. Mason explained. “I called the building manager back and I told her, “If I give you half of his rent until you evict him, will you sign over the lease to me for the same deal you’re giving him?’” “She said ‘OK.’ So I paid half of his rent for two months and then one day she told me he was out and she gave me keys to the store.” The owner of Book Circus filed for bankruptcy and the courts tried to come for the Masons’ assets. So Book Circus became Circus of Books.
But their lawyer, John Weston, who in 1990 described the federal prosecutions to the LA Times as “a national censorial stranglehold on the citizens of America,” told the Masons to fight. The U.S. government, Weston knew, did not actually want to lose their tax dollars. He defended the freedoms of adult industries in front of the Supreme Court multiple times in his career; some cases were more successful than others. Barry Mason Enterprises Inc. vs. USA took two years to battle in court. In the end, neither of the Masons served any time. Instead, Barry agreed to a pre-trial diversion—essentially probation without a conviction—and the charges were dropped.
In 2020 the store was taken over by Channel 1 Releasing already operating Chi Chi LaRues in WeHo West. The store was reimagined 60 years later as Circus. Circus has a high end boutique, getting away from the seedy hook-up style of yesterdays porn shop. The new store also features Gallery @ Circus which highlights LGBTQ artists for art that might be a bit racy still for most galleries.
For 35-plus years, Circus of Books gave Los Angeles’ LGBT+ community a space to socialize and celebrate themselves without judgement. Unbeknownst to many customers, the store was cultivated by owners Karen and Barry Mason, a straight couple with three children. The Masons long refused to disclose the nature of their business to friends or family.
While maintaining the secret, they witnessed the dawn of the HIV/AIDS epidemic firsthand, losing a generation of treasured employees. Still, during that time, they never identified as activists — just everyday entrepreneurs catering to a market, until the Internet destroyed it. Executive produced by Ryan Murphy, CIRCUS OF BOOKS is the debut documentary from artist Rachel Mason, who finally asks the least radical people she knows — her parents — how they became America’s biggest distributors of hardcore gay porn, and why Karen reacted so negatively when her own son came out of the closet.