Karen and Barry Mason never intended to become porn pioneers; Barry actually had several patents for medical devices, including one for a new kind of dialysis machine. But money was tight, so, in 1982, the Masons took over Circus of Books, a legendary porn palace in Los Angeles on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and La Jolla Avenue.
Initially, the couple had started distributing Larry Flynt’s Hustler as, well, a side hustle. Circus of Books (then known as Book Circus) was on their route, and when the previous owner’s drug problem forced him into bankruptcy, they stepped in.
The Masons ran the store, which opened in 1960, for nearly 40 years—seeing it through the rise of gay rights, the AIDS epidemic, the internet, and hookup apps. It was more than just somewhere to grab a jack-off mag or lube (although there was plenty of that, too.)
It was a place to connect, to catch up—to be wonderfully flagrant with your sexuality.
“Before the web, pornography was primarily accessed and often experienced in public, communal spaces,” Lucas Hilderbrand, a professor of film and media studies at the University of California, Irvine, tells NewNowNext. “Circus of Books was a significant site for these ephemeral experiences of queer [predominantly male] sexuality.”
Even the parking lot was so cruisy, it was christened “Vaseline Alley.”
In February, the Masons shuttered the store, a victim of the detrimental abundance of online porn. But Karen and Barry’s daughter, Rachel Mason, is keeping the spirit of Circus of Books alive with a gallery show of works that celebrate its erotic legacy.
“It was just like any other family business,” Rachel says to NewNowNext of growing up with parents who ran a “dirty” bookstore. “I didn’t realize until many years later that all the colorful people who worked at the store, and the hustlers who stood outside, were gay. Or that there was anything unusual about any of it.”
It was when she became immersed in the LGBTQ community herself, in high school, that Rachel started to realize how vital the store was to that community. Eventually, her parents let her and fellow artist John Knuth create gallery spaces at the Circus of Books in Silver Lake and West Hollywood.
“We would do an outreach to artists, many of whom were excited to show their work in the context of the particularly gritty, haphazard world of the stores,” she recalls.
As she finalized work on a documentary about the store (it premieres at Tribeca on April 26), Rachel felt the time was right to open an exhibit—to bring a bit of gritty queer L.A. to New York City. She sought out a diverse group of artists to include, from those with direct links to Circus of Books, to members of the newer generation who represent its legacy.
“We included some of my heroes—like Ron Athey, who influenced a generation of artists in L.A. and beyond,” she says. “[And] Karen Finley, who like Ron, faced down the federal government when [her] work was directly censored by the NEA.”
Circus of Books was actually a battleground for First Amendment rights during the George H.W. Bush years: An employee shipped a box of straight and gay porn tapes to a customer in rural Pennsylvania. The sale turned out to be a sting, though, and the Masons were indicted on federal charges of transporting obscene materials across state lines. After years of litigation, they agreed to a pretrial diversion program and a $20,000 fine.
“Our freedoms, [like] freedom of speech … are fought for in the fringes with material you may not even care about,” Karen declared in a video interview with Rachel. “I certainly never saw the movies we were indicted for. But you have to stand up for freedom of expression. … And in the long-term you’re proven right.”
Bob Mizer, who would personally come into the shop to sell copies of his publications, and Tom of Finland, who showed up for signings, are both included in the New York show. Rachel had hoped to include another First Amendment veteran, Robert Mapplethorpe—”The Circus sold his work as soon as it was available,” she notes—but his foundation wouldn’t allow it.
The exhibition, on display at the Fierman Gallery through May, is also forward-looking: It features contemporary queer artists actively working in L.A., like Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Mariah Garnett, Michael Stipe, and Seth Bogart. Many have a personal connection to Circus of Books. For instance, the store was the first place photographer Dean Sameshima was told to visit when he called an LGBTQ hotline in his youth. Zackary Drucker procured materials for her colleges there. Video artist Chris E. Vargas, whom Mason went to high school with, even worked at the store.
“I think we are all starved for spaces of human connection and community—in the art world or the larger queer community,” gallery owner David Fierman tells NewNowNext. “The gallery—with this exhibition in particular—is an attempt to fill that void as a meeting space, in homage to what Circus of Books did in L.A. It’s now about both keeping a history alive and building community for the future.”
Circus of Books is on view through May 6 at Fierman NYC, 127 Henry Street, in New York.