A legacy LGBTQ business that for over three decades was a pilgrimage site for aficionados of homoerotic magazines, books, and video- which also included scarce and sought out vintage titles, is closing its doors Saturday, February 9, forever.
Circus of Books (originally knows as Book Circus), located at 8230 Santa Monica Blvd. at the corner of North La Jolla Avenue in West Hollywood, was a beloved institution offering gay and straight porn magazines as well as adult sexual toys during a time those publications were the primary medium for distributing queer sexual imagery as well as being of dubious legality. The shop also sold international newspapers and classic literary titles.
As was the case with nearly all of the LGBTQ bookstores across the United States, many of which have closed over the past 15 years, the shop was also a community mainstay, a refuge, a haven, a safe place for the community members to come together, meet, chat, peruse publications that offered a perspective on the sexual lives of adult LGBTQ people, but more so, the shop offered them a brief sanctuary from homophobia.
In a piece published Friday, February 8, the Los Angeles Times noted;
“Over the years, Circus of Books has survived an FBI raid, federal obscenity charges and complaints from law enforcement who said the store attracted prostitution and other criminal elements. It remained open during the AIDS crisis, when numerous employees died. But it could not survive Amazon.”
Even into the early 1990s, the shop faced prosecution for filling mail orders from jurisdictions outside of California where “prevailing community standards” put sellers of sexually explicit magazines and videos into legal jeopardy.
Circus of Books owners, Karen and Barry Mason, told the LA Times that “they never planned to sell porn for long. They were just really good at it.”
“I always assumed that we would end up doing something else,” Karen told the Times. “We don’t know anything, really.”
There were instances where the Masons found themselves being criminally charged. Not even ten years into being in business, in the early 1990s the Times reported, an employee shipped several gay and straight pornographic VHS tapes — including “Licorice Twists,” “Latex Slaves Discipline” and “The Best of Bruce Seven, Vol. 1” — to a customer in Pennsylvania’s Lebanon County.
But it was a Federal criminal sting. The Masons were indicted on federal charges of interstate transportation of obscene materials, and the FBI raided their warehouse, carrying guns.
After years of litigation, the couple avoided jail time by agreeing to a pretrial diversion program and a $20,000 fine. For about a year, Barry had to report to federal court once a month to show he was still working and not committing any crimes. Federal investigators, he said, later mailed back the tapes they’d taken as evidence.
In an era of Amazon and internet retailing, the shop, like many other ‘Mom & Pop’ businesses have ended up closing, unable to compete; “A lot of people are sorry to see it go, grateful its been there all this time,” Karen said. “And as we’re closing, people are saying, ‘You know, this store saved my life.’ “
The fate of the Spanish-style building where the store has operated, built in 1928 and remodeled in 1934, is unknown at this time.
Reporting contributed by the Los Angeles Times & the Staff of the Los Angeles Blade.