When Karen and Barry Mason opened Circus of Books in 1982, they saw the adult erotica store as an opportunity to support their three children. But for the queer people who entered the doors of the famous shop on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, it was a place where one could escape oppression, judgment, and, at times, the horrors of the AIDS epidemic—a place where you could finally be yourself.
Now, their daughter Rachel has added a new chapter to their story, turning Circus of Books into the subject of a mesmerizing Netflix documentary that takes a look at the iconic queer landmark and the ways in which two clean-cut, traditional parents raised a family—and risked imprisonment—while inadvertently providing a safe space for an ailing queer community.
Ahead of a screening of her film, also titled Circus of Books, at Thursday night’s opening gala of Outfest in downtown Los Angeles, Mason addressed the crowd and asked everyone who worked on the film to stand. After a handful of people received recognition, she then asked anyone in the giant audience who had ever been inside Circus of Books before it closed to stand. A wave swept over the crowd as 90 percent of the room rose to their feet. That sums up the lasting effects the store has had on LGBTQ people nearly 40 years after it began welcoming customers.
“I think what my parents did meant different things to people in different decades,” Mason told NewNowNext after the event. “I think in the ’80s, they were like a lifeline. They were almost like a hospital triage center when there was nowhere to go.”
During the AIDS crisis of that decade and the ’90s, Karen and Barry never turned away people suffering from the virus. They were also unable to escape it. In the film, they remember working with faithful employees on a Friday and learning that they had died by the following Monday. As the epidemic claimed countless lives around them, Circus of Books remained an epicenter of hope and support for the community.
Barry Mason says it was during that time that he realized his little shop might have been more important than he could have ever imagined. “People would actually come into our store who were our customers and thank us for being there,” he told NewNowNext at the Outfest screening. “I don’t go to a hardware store and thank people for having this hardware store. So I started getting the impression that it was more than we thought getting into it.”
He recalls people telling him the store was “like a safe harbor” where they could shop without being bothered or hassled. “It was a comfortable place,” he said. “And nobody insinuated anything.”
Things weren’t always that simple for the couple, though. They kept the details of their business a secret from their friends in the synagogue and even their children. “I was never scared of being outed,” Karen Mason told NewNowNext. “What I was concerned about is that people would make judgments about my children based on the work we did or make judgments on us because of what we sold, and that was a good reason not to speak about it, I thought.”
She said that when people found out, they’d often say, “Oh, I have no problem with that.” But for Karen, that was a problem. “That, to me, was judgment because you wouldn’t say that to a lawyer or doctor. I thought, What do I care if you have a problem? I don’t wanna hear that.”
By the turn of the century, the shop had transformed into what Rachel calls a “nostalgia center,” a retreat where queer people could go to reflect on their history. “People went there to remember what it was like to have such a cool place,” she said. “But then there was Instagram and so many other outlets that by the time the store closed, it was like a museum.”
While Circus of Books officially shuttered in February, unable to compete with the pornographic capabilities of the internet, Rachel has helped preserve it through her captivating and heartwarming film.
Now the world gets to meet her parents, who didn’t just spend their lives selling sex toys and gay porn DVDS, but created a sanctuary for an entire community.