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Circus of Books and the Capitalism of Gay Porn: an Interview with Director Rachel Mason

Porn is ubiquitous in 2020. There are any number of free streaming sites where people can delve into their own interests in the privacy and anonymity of their own home. One such site, Pornhub, made interesting headlines recently by making their premium service free for a month for any number of countries experiencing shelter-in-place conditions due to Covid-19; they also added donations of 50,000 surgical masks for New York City, and cash donations to various European organizations on the front and the Sex Workers Outreach Program. It may be hard for younger people to imagine a time when it was illegal to ship illicit materials across state lines and you couldn’t find a copy of Hustler anywhere because no one would carry it.

With that backdrop, Rachel Mason’s documentary Circus of Books has dropped on Netflix, our (other) quarantine constant companion. The film opens the shop door to her parent’s lifelong business, Circle of Books, where for 35+ years Karen and Barry Mason — a straight Jewish couple with three children — sold lube, poppers and porn to the (mostly) gay clientele of West Hollywood. “I had taken a Gay and Lesbian Studies class [at Yale in 2004]” says Mason, “and I told the teacher very casually that ‘I don’t know if it’s of interest, but my, uh, my parents have this store in LA’ and he was like, ‘wait, your parents own Circus of Books? Rachel, that is seriously part of gay history.’…I knew I would have to do it one day and it, it wasn’t necessarily like my front burner, it was much more of my back-burner project.”

With the 2nd store (in Silverlake) closing in 2016, Mason knew it was time to get her parents on record about their piece of history. “My mom was like this isn’t going to be interesting to anyone,” the director recounts, “I don’t know why you want to film this.” Karen Mason’s complicated relationship to the store is central to the story, as is the fact that for years Rachel knew nothing about what was sold there, having to hear about it from a gay friend in high school. Once she found out, “it was a real point of pride,” she admits, and her parents are beloved in the community, especially to those who worked at the shops over the years.

For two people who never intended to do anything in pornography, the Mason’s connections are mind-blowing. Larry Flynt credits them for breaking his publications into Southern California. Barry Mason actually bought a truck and became a distributor because he heard no one would carry Hustler nationally.  Gay porn icon Jeff Stryker considers them personal friends and speaks fondly of the films he made for them.  Oh yeah, did I mention that at one point they financed as many as 3 hard core gay porn films a week? “I didn’t know how many people knew them,” Mason says, “I was like, wow, you guys made like mountains of movies. And I always saw all of that stuff in the garage and everywhere else. I didn’t really put it all together that it was all them making all these things.”

The interview with Flynt is very telling. “His assistant said he doesn’t say yes to a lot of interviews, so he must really like your parents,” she recalls. However, Flynt’s relationship to porn is much like the Mason’s own, he’s a businessman. “He’s such a strong capitalist, you know, money was the bottom line and the market was the bottom line.” Flynt, who at one time identified as an Evangelical Christian, had no problem being the face of free speech in the battle against the obscenity exception to the First Amendment. “People always downgrade people in the adult industry,” Mason explains, “you know, anyone who deals with sex can’t be that smart, can’t be that savvy. And, you know, when I walked in, he was looking at sales figures in the kind of detail that like a stockbroker might, to say nothing of his activism that, I think like my parents, was kind of accidental.”

A still from Rachel Morgan’s doc CIRCUS OF BOOKS

Barry Mason also had his own brush with the morality police. Attorney General and Reagan appointee Dick Thornburgh commandeered the U.S. Postal Service to seize packages from adult distributors. In 1990, Mason was among a trio of California producers and distributors indicted on charges of interstate transportation of obscene material after shipping VHS tapes to Dallas. All of this happening without Rachel knowing it was going on. For Karen, this was the sort of thing that you would not reveal to anybody. “That was how it always was with them,” Rachel Mason says, “hopefully nobody ever asks you what your parents do and hopefully they don’t get asked if they meet somebody what they do and you know, let’s just hope that it never comes up.” Her father may have been okay with it, he comes off as playful and amused by his own story, but not Karen. “Let me say this film was completely, you know, my mom’s biggest nightmare.”

Only now, as they look back at the history of the store, can the Masons maybe begin to see the tremendous importance of what they did. “I think there’s a very vast difference between gay porn and straight porn,” says the Director, “You know, when you’re not entitled to seeing something that’s I think a basic right, a right to your sexuality, then when you have access to it, it’s this incredible thing.”

But the story of Circus of Books isn’t just the bookstore, it’s the family around it, and the immorality perception that Karen fought to keep her children isolated from, until she had to face that the most unfair judgement might have been her own. When Rachel’s brother Josh came out as an adult, Karen had, by her own admission, the worst possible reaction. “She’s totally aware that this was like the wrong response and she screwed up,” Rachel says, “but, at the same time she feels like there’s a validity in showing the things that are, you know, the difficult things because it could help some other family members, some other people.”

Rachel’s original intention with the documentary was not to dive too deeply into her family’s personal interaction, but as filming continued producers and editors encouraged her to look harder at her brother’s story.  “There’s an activism there,” she says, “Josh really struggled, and I think he sees this film as being something that can help other people. I really credit him with being generous because he knows that there could be another teenager out there watching it.”

Mason thinks religion is at the center to most people’s judgement of LGBTQ culture, but also that it can be the path to acceptance: “what I think is so powerful is when you come up against a religious value that is in dissonance with the teachings of the Bible, you know, honoring your family and being good to your children. That is like a top level value.”

Circus of Books (which landed its Netflix Originals deal ahead of its 2019 Tribeca Film Festival showing) premieres April 22, 2020. Director Rachel Mason also wrote and performs the end credit song, “Give You Everything,” and will be releasing a full album, “Circus Life,” timed to the film’s release.

– Bears Rebecca Fonte (@BearsFonte)

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Bears Rebecca Fonté is a transgender filmmaker, festival programmer, and journalist. She founded Other Worlds Film Festival after two years as the Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival. Her SciFi shorts ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE, PRENATAL, and THE SECRET KEEPER have played 150+ festivals including Fantasia, SciFi London, Boston SciFi, FilmQuest, Austin Film Festival and Dances With Films. Her LGBTQIA Horror short CONVERSION THERAPIST made its world premiere at Inside Out in Toronto and US Premiere at aGLIFF. Her feature thriller iCRIME, which she wrote and directed, was released on DVD, VOD and streaming by Breaking Glass/Vicious Circle Films in 2011. Bears Rebecca also was one of the producers on the Sundance Jury-Award Winning short THE PROCEDURE. In 2021, after five years on the Board of Directors she was made Artistic Director of aGLIFF, the oldest Queer film festival in the Southwest.

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