GAY L.A. – New Doc Celebrates the Queer Legacy of Circus of Books

Photo: Facebook. For decades, Circus of Books has been a stalwart mini-chain for old school porn and magazines. Now, a new documentary shines a light on its importance to the queer community.

The Sunset Boulevard store was the first to go, back in 2016. Last year, the West Hollywood flagship Circus of Books, an old-school store specializing in porn mags, books, and videos, shuttered to the dismay and sadness of many.

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But let’s save our tears: the gay legacy left by Circus of Books isn’t quite dead. Not yet, anyway, thanks to filmmaker Rachel Mason, whose parents Karen and Barry were responsible for taking over the legendary porn store in the 1980s. 

According to a recent L.A. Magazine article, Mason’s parents entered the brick-and-mortar porn industry by accident. The two met at a party for Jewish singles in 1960s Woodland Hills, fell in love, and start investing their time and energy into stocking up the latest issues of Honcho, Mandate, and Blueboy. 

Not all at once, of course. Before they got involved with the Circus, Barry worked in the industry (no, the other one) doing special effects work for films like “Airplane,” while Karen worked as a reporter. After they found out that the owner of Circus of Books was failing to pay rent in the early ‘80s, they took over, quickly launching their own production company based on sales from the store.

Business was bumping, but not for too long. The AIDS crisis took care of that. 

“People might find it shocking,” Rachel Mason told L.A. Magazine, “But my parents saw all these young men dying. They understand what a challenge it is to be a gay man. Her concern came from a place of conservative religious values, which is crazy and in direct conflict with the store.”

After AIDS came the ‘90s, the early 2000s and the slow death of paper porn alongside the emergence of the internet. Circus of Books held on as long as it could, but in the end, it went the way of the Dodo. 

Mason, who is queer, decided to tell her parents’ story by creating a documentary, executive produced by Ryan Murphy in partnership with Netflix, about the store’s legacy. The film recently screened for the first time at Outfest. By interviewing famous and infamous patrons of the Circus, from Alaska Thunderfuck to Larry Flynt himself, Mason gets at something real. For many, Circus wasn’t just a porn store. In a long ago time and a faraway land (WeHo before the rainbow crosswalk), it was a place where queer folks could find each other, and themselves.