April 29, 2020 at 2:11 pm PDT | by Leonard A. Robinson
‘Circus of Books,’ a straight couple’s back-up plan in porn
Circus of Books, gay news, Washington Blade

Karen and Barry Mason inside Circus of Books, the queer porn shop they owned and operated for decades. (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Karen and Barry Mason never planned to own a bookstore.

Karen came to Los Angeles from Ohio seeking a respite from her journalism career where she profiled Hustler publisher Larry Flynt and former U.S. Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart for the Cincinnati Enquirer. Stewart’s rise to prominence came during the court’s hearing in Jacobellis v. Ohio when he uttered the phrase, “I know it when I see it” regarding the legal definition of pornography.

However, her plans shifted when she fell in love with Barry Mason. Mason became a successful innovator in the kidney dialysis technology business until rising malpractice insurance costs drove them out of business.

The couple, desperate for income, responded to an ad for Hustler who was looking for a distributor in the Los Angeles area later taking over Circus of Books, a responsibility they envisioned as only being temporary.

“Circus of Books,” as directed by their daughter Rachel Mason, follows the store’s roughly 30-year history going from the Mason’s temporary gig to an epicenter for gay Los Angelenos seeking a safe place to express themselves.

From a production standpoint, the film is solid and compelling. The writing, however, could use some improvements. In some scenes, the storytelling seems rushed with certain events being given merely a cursory view.

Karen’s attitude, at certain points, leaves much to be desired and was among the greatest factors in the film’s shortcomings. In some instances, she comes off as dismissive and uncooperative, and at worse, hostile and condescending.

Josh Mason described his mother’s instructions during their childhood visits to the store as, “Don’t look around. Look at the floor.” Throughout the film, it was clear that Karen followed her advice leaving viewers to wonder if she ever truly overcame the shame surrounding her role in owning an adult bookstore geared toward gay men.

The family, after all, at Karen’s demand, passed for a white, traditional, suburban, synagogue attending family when their professional lives were quite the contrary. In reality, they were as one customer described them, “purveyors of gourmet sexual material for every pervert in America.”

Either way, it’s obvious to viewers that this has weighed tremendously on Karen.

This was best exemplified in her response to her son, Josh, coming out as gay. In a rather bizarre twist of events, Karen is led to believe that Josh’s sexuality is punishment for her involvement in Circus of Books.

Gradually, she comes to accept Josh and reconciles her acceptance with her religious beliefs and becomes a prominent advocate for other families with LGBTQ children through his work with their local PFLAG chapter.

Some of the most emotionally painful scenes are those in which Josh recounts his coming out experience, including fears of being abandoned by his parents and family. In scenes like this, viewers might question if the Masons were truly prepared to share this aspect of their story.

One of the film’s most compelling attributes, however, is how the store is presented in the midst of Los Angeles queer history. Viewers will see familiar faces like adult entertainer Jeff Stryker to present day drag celebrity Alaska Thunderfuck who worked in Circus of Books for years.

Interestingly enough, viewers will notice that while progress has been made in some areas, others have seen many of these same issues either resurface or take new form.

For instance, in 2006, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the rabbinical authority for the movement of Judaism that the Masons belonged to, welcomed ordination of openly gay and lesbian rabbis and the blessing of same-sex unions. Six years later, in 2012, it crafted ritual blessings for same-sex unions.

Today, non-Orthodox observant Jews like Karen Mason wouldn’t begin to worry about congregation sanctioned judgement or condemnation coming upon them for accepting their child for who they are.

On the other hand, scenes surrounding AIDS carry a certain poignancy as we watch amid a global pandemic. Many of the same players who guided Americans through the AIDS crisis, such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, are among the same ones guiding us through the COVID-19 pandemic. Americans are reexamining the manner in which they live their day-to-day lives with the people they love amid the tragic loss of life of so many of their friends, family members, and neighbors. These scenes serve as crucial reminders of the many lost to the AIDS crisis and the impact that it had on the day-to-day life of countless Americans and their families.

This hits close to home considering the loss of my grandfather in 1993, a few short years before my birth, to AIDS-related illness.

Unfortunately, there is a call among social conservatives to bring back laws severely limiting the private consumption of pornography among adults. In the American Conservative, writer Charlie Peters writes about Only Fans pages, a subscription-based video platform gaining popularity among adult entertainers, “Every now and then, the modern world produces a trend so ghostly you can’t help but sit back and think, would a global Islamic Caliphate really be that bad?”

Let’s hope this is just bad humor.

The irony of those, like Peters and the American Conservative, is simply too much to be taken seriously. They, after all, are coalescing their energy to push for a more sexually restrictive society around a president who paid six figures in hush money to a porn star.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film comes toward the end. Barry and Rachel Mason are leading the PFLAG section of the parade waving their flags as they walk past the soon-to-be-closed Circus of Books.

It’s painful to watch the scene of another casualty in the never ending war on queer spaces.

Circus of Books, like many other historical queer spaces, was a crucial chapter in the story of the evolving role in American life for gay and lesbian people. But it is now the responsibility of the next generation to create their own spaces whether physical, digital, or elsewhere.

It’s crucial, however, that these new spaces achieve the same as the retiring ones: accessible and welcoming of all with a continual nod toward the future.

It’s for this reason that anyone with a stake in the future or nostalgia for the past should give “Circus of Books” a watch.

 

Leonard A. Robinson writes from Baltimore. He has been published in the Washington Blade, New Voices, and Reason.

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