A squeaky-clean documentary about the legendary L.A. porn shop
A squeaky-clean chronicle of a hardcore Los Angeles sex shop, Circus of Books keeps life’s messy vagaries off-camera so all viewers see is a rose-tinted homage to the red-hot gay adult industry. To put it less mildly: this hagiographic hand job is a “just the tip” tease that doesn’t really penetrate its subject matter. More narrative thrust, please!
CIRCUS OF BOOKS ★★★(3/5 stars)
Directed by: Rachel Mason
Running time: 85 min
If you believe owners Karen and Barry Mason, they’re a couple of average middle-class Jewish squares who kinda-sorta stumbled into their eyebrow-arching mid-life careers, transforming a derelict smut shop into a bona fide boner business. Come on: people don’t just accidentally become porn purveyors, let alone seriously prolific pornographers. What gives? Good question for their daughter Rachel, who’s also the director of this politely probing documentary. It’s very clear that she’s there for posterity, not profundity.
What makes Circus of Books all the more improbable is that Barry Mason was an inventor and special-effects guy who innovated dialysis equipment and worked on shows like Star Trek. Ohioan transplant Karen was a former police-beat journalist for the Cincinnati Enquirer who in her heyday covered all sorts of if-it-bleeds-it-leads crimes. She also interviewed notable public figures like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who famously defined obscenity with delectable obfuscation: “I know it when I see it.”
Aptly enough, another one of her interview subjects was fellow Buckeye Stater and skin-mag magnate Larry Flynt. That connection came in handy a few years later when the Masons were looking to make a more lucrative life for themselves. Flynt needed a wholesale L.A. distributor for its dirty magazines Hustler and Chic, and the Masons jumped at the chance.
Book Circus opened in 1960, but the Masons took it over, tweaked the name and turned it into Circus of Books in 1982. Although it definitely sold books, including the lesbian classic Curious Wine and resource compendium Catalog of Sexual Consciousness, the store wasn’t really for bookworms. The “Over 18” Section of the store carried less venerable (but more profitable) explicit periodicals such as Blueboy, Honcho, and Mandate.
The Masons rode the home video revolution, too, making hard cash on those hard bodies, with VHS titles like Hot Lunch, Bi-Ceps and Studz. They also stocked up on anal lube, erection cream, and dildos aplenty. Those with scat kinks could even pick up a RimPerfect Rim Chair, complete with pleatherette pillow, which offered a “Rim with a View.” E.M. Forster would have been proud.
Success allowed them to open additional stores in L.A., but that original landmark location on Santa Monica Boulevard lasted nearly 40 years. The bookstore chain’s status in LBGT history rightly deserves recognition, and Mason’s chronicle is unequivocally important if only for that reason. “Circus of Books was my first glimpse into the fact that I wasn’t alone as a gay person,” says one longtime fan. “To see men naked and unafraid?” explains another customer. “That gave us a lot of pride.”
That’s a beautiful sentiment, but it’s difficult to believe that the Masons were sex-positive innovators. As they freely admit, the Masons raised their three children to be relatively (or willfully) oblivious to the family trade. And God forbid the neighbors find out. They were ashamed.
And yet. Not only did they sell XXX videos, they doubled down, eventually producing and distributing them—initially one film every six weeks, then ramping up to two a week. “Good, honest, trustworthy people,” remembers marquee movie stud Jeff Stryker. OK, sure, but what about the people they worked with? Were all the cast and crew just as honest and trustworthy? Or the other merchants? Straining credulity, Karen even adds, “We never saw those films.” Gimme a break.
Karen paints herself as a devout woman who would much rather spend her day in a synagogue. When her youngest son Joshua came out of the closet, she felt like God must be punishing her. Which is where the documentary really gets interesting, until it doesn’t. She quickly admits that “I needed to rethink my theology,” then pivoted to accommodating her son’s sexuality. “I was not not going to be the best parent I could be,” she says. End of conflict.
Barry gets an even more shallow profile, as the unruffled man who smiled his way through the entire porntastic experience and rolled with anything even remotely outrageous. “The whole operation was a little goofy,” he says, offering a relaxed grin. Excuse me, but his wife insisted that he be the fall guy when the FBI raided the operation in the late 1980s. Barry would have even become a felon were it not for the subsequent Clinton Administration easing federal prosecution laws. But whatever. The dude is the shrug-emoji personified. Enough said.
Except it isn’t. There’s a fascinating story bubbling underneath Circus of Books, one that the Masons very clearly don’t want to explore. The film needs a supplemental chorus of insight, possibly from the seamier side of their entrepreneurial exploits. Or even their psyches.
“We’re just an aging, ailing business,” Karen says. As a bold enterprise of sexual expression, Circus of Books was a milestone. To the Masons, it seemed more like a millstone. Too bad the director treads so lightly on such heavy material.