Warning: This interview contains spoilers for Circus of Books, streaming on Netflix April 22.
Rachel Mason was in high school when she finally learned what her parents did for a living. She knew they owned a bookstore — at least, that’s what they told everyone at their Conservative Jewish synagogue. She also knew she and her two brothers were instructed to look at the floor on the rare occasions they visited the store. But Karen and Barry Mason, owners of Circus of Books, Los Angeles’ gay porn landmark? No way.
“I ended up totally falling in love with the store once I recognized what it really was,” Mason told Refinery29 over the phone. “When [my friends] told me that that store was the coolest place where you could get everything, I thought, That's totally weird. It doesn't align with how boring and conservative my parents are.”
“My mom embodies the ultimate stereotype of the most demanding, forceful Jewish mother in the world,” she added. “Meanwhile, she's running a gay porn empire.”
That contradiction is at the heart of her new Netflix documentary, Circus of Books, which explores how a middle class couple from the Valley ended up owning and operating a hard core porn business for 37 years, weathering backlash, the AIDS crisis and even an FBI investigation.
Still, Mason didn’t initially set out to make a documentary about her family. In 2019, when the store closed its iconic West Hollywood location, she was more intent on capturing the end of an era. The 8230 Santa Monica Boulevard storefront initially known as Book Circus started back in the mid-1960s. By 1982, it was failing, and Barry and Karen, who had been making ends meet by setting themselves up as distributors for Hustler magazine, decided to buy it. The former special effects engineer (Barry) and journalist (Karen) stocked the space with magazines, hard core films, and adult toys, all catering to the LGBTQ+ community at a time when many members of it couldn’t live their lives out in the open. Over the years, Circus of Books became more than a store: It was the cultural epicenter of LGBTQ+ life in the city.
But as Mason started filming, she realized she couldn’t tell the story of the store without sharing how it affected the lives and family of the people who ran it. “When I started the interviews, I realized it was important to listen to the depth of the story and all the different pieces of it.”
Over the film’s 90-minute runtime, we get to know Barry, Karen, and their children, but also the incredible cast of characters who have worked at and frequented the store over the years, including RuPaul’s Drag Race’s Alaska Thunderfuck 5000. We learn how they expanded their business to become one of the biggest gay porn distributors in the country, attracting the ire of the Reagan federal government, and how they used their influence to fight for inclusion and tolerance. We watch the business slowly grow obsolete with the rise of online porn. But we also see the incredible strain the business put on the family as they tried to reconcile their work and home lives.
Ahead, Mason breaks down the making of this deeply personal film — the true story you didn’t see on camera.
Refinery29: What was the most challenging part of making this film?
Rachel Mason: “It does get a little exhausting when the subject of your film is your own mother, and [she’s] constantly telling you to stop doing it. But I think that the challenge for me as an artist was that this is the most deeply collaborative thing I've ever done in my whole life. I really had to have other voices or opinions, producers, test audiences. I put my own spin on everything and I crafted it the way I wanted, but I also listened to a lot of people. Any director who says that they did it all is totally lying.”
Did you come across things about your parents that you weren’t expecting?
“My mom is the gay porn expert. She knows everyone in the industry; she has a story about them all. She knows many people who died of AIDS; she knows who died when and how. At one point [she and my dad] were the biggest distributors in the United States. I didn't know that. No idea. I didn't know the extent of it. That's what came out in the film.”
Did making this film change your relationship with them in any way?
“I would say that the success of the film has led them to have a different kind of respect for my work. I’m an artist, and I had a pretty solid art career up until I made this film. I showed my work at respectable galleries and museums, and performed at many really incredible stages. I've had a really great run, but it hasn't been lucrative and widely appreciated. My mom just never understood that anything I did had a level of value that she could appreciate. This film has just hit the highest markers in every possible way. It made money. It’s on Netflix. It actually had a huge amount of press, the kind you can't just ignore. I think she's forced to reconcile that I have skills, and that I am a professional, and I made something valuable, whereas that wasn't always the case.”
You talked about your mom telling you to stop filming at certain points during the process. How eager was the rest of your family to participate?
“My younger brother, who tells his coming out story, was the most reticent, I think for obvious reasons. He’s telling this intensely personal story, and he didn't know how it would all unfold or what would happen. For him to do that in the first place was really generous, and I think he did that as a gesture of sibling love. He's a very private, reserved guy, not like me at all in terms of enjoying being in the center of wild things happening. I'm really grateful because I think that's a part of the story that people really relate to.
“My older brother was fine. My parents, too — they just all assumed it would just be another one of my projects that would basically live and die in the art community. They had no other reason to expect this to be anything other than that.”
And now it's on Netflix!
“Yeah. I think they implicitly agreed to think it wasn't going to be a big deal.”
Part of what makes the family stuff pop is that you have access to so much great home footage from the 1980s and ‘90s. Were you always interested in filmmaking?
“I was filming a lot as a kid. The very opening shot is me running around with the camera in the kitchen. I learned how to film with my dad's Hi8 video camera. I was always fascinated with filmmaking and because my dad has a film background — the first thing he says in the film is, ‘It's not in focus, Rachel.’ My editor said that most home footage is very shaky and not easy to work with, but because my dad was a cameraman, our home footage looks really good.
Of your parents, Barry is the more self-effacing, but he’s got such good stories.
“Yeah! He worked on Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey, knew Jim Morrison, all these things. My dad only reveals stories when I'm asking for them flat out. You have to really pry.”
Speaking of secrets, when did you find out about the FBI investigation?
“I think I was in college. I just remember them saying something about the FBI. I was like, Wow, the FBI? What in the world would that be all about? It was like, Oh well, we don't really want to tell you all that. It's always been downplayed. When I had the chance to really probe about it, it was huge.”
Do you personally feel like you understand your parents better now?
“Definitely. I came to understand what they did, in terms of the larger struggle for gay rights and sexual liberation. We had a really conservative government that was trying to stop businesses like theirs. They had to fight the federal government. It really was shocking that they could keep an incredible secret like that so fully. We had absolutely no idea.”
This interview has been edited for style and length.