This Film About an Iconic L.A. Gay Porn Shop Is Your New Netflix Obsession

Rachel Mason grew up unaware that every gay star in Hollywood cruised her parents’ "bookstore." Now she's made a documentary about it.

Before Alaska Thunderfuck became an international drag superstar, she worked behind the counter at Circus of Books, one of the most iconic, cruisiest shops in Los Angeles. Although the Circus left town in early 2019, it was an LGBTQ institution in the 1980s and ’90s, and is now the subject of an eponymous, deliciously entertaining Netflix documentary.

The film comes courtesy of queer-identified artist, musician, and first-time feature documentary director Rachel Mason, whose parents—former special-effects guru Barry Mason and erstwhile court reporter Karen—ran the store for 27 years. She had the perk of insider status and access to archival materials and key personnel while making Circus of Books, which chronicles its start, ups and downs, and the grave toll internet retail (and porn) took on the shop; the Masons closed its Silver Lake location in 2016 and its WeHo branch last year.
 

Executive produced by Ryan Murphy, Circus of Books features former employee Alaska, publisher Larry Flynt (the Masons distributed Hustler), and gay porn icon Jeff Stryker (who had a side career in music with songs like “Pop You in the Pooper”). Mason also shares more personal revelations, including the way her parents kept her shielded from the nature of the “bookstores” they owned and her mother’s homophobia toward her own son, Josh, who eventually came out as gay.

Mason rang up NewNowNext to discuss the doc, Murphy’s plan for a narrative series inspired by it, and her current relationship with trans porn star Buck Angel.

Although Circus of Books was famous for being a porn and cruising spot, it actually had an amazing selection of books!

I’m so glad you mention that because it’s the thing my mom always reminded me of. It’s not something to downplay. It was interesting and eclectic, and the shop had an incredible selection of magazines, too. It was amazing.

There’s some great tea-spilling from former employee Alaska in the doc. Did any other luminaries work Circus’ counters in its day?

Alaska is the one who went on to huge fame, but I know my parents went to see one employee who was trying to make it in the comedy world at The Comedy Store, and the person who opened for him was Roseanne Barr. He wasn’t very good, but they saw one of her first acts, and they said she was amazing. But there were a lot of customers who were luminaries.

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Circus of Books.

Name names!

The list of celebrities goes on and on. Basically any gay male celebrity in L.A. went to that store. Including Ryan Murphy! I know there’s a funny picture of Kathy Griffin going there. She’s a fan of gay porn. But when I spoke with my parents about this, they said, “You cannot name the famous people because we think of this as a doctor’s office.” There’s a code of privacy, and that’s part of what made the store appeal to so many people. They trusted it was a private experience.

Did anyone you asked to interview refuse, or did anything not work out?

Dan Savage. I had an early interview scheduled with him, and for whatever reason his schedule didn’t permit him to do it. But now that I look back, everyone on the final interview list was directly tied to the story itself, including activist Alexei Romanoff, who was one of the people to start the whole Pride movement. He is a true elder, and actually owned the store before it was Circus, when it was the New Faces bar. Had I gotten Dan Savage, who to me is an expert in all things gay porn and gay sexuality, it would have been cool, but it was extraneous to the specific story we told. I hope he can see the movie now and have us on [his podcast] for an interview or something.

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Barry and Rachel Mason in Circus of Books.

You also address your brother’s coming out and your mother’s homophobia. How did your experience as a queer person compare to your brother’s?

I didn’t really have the dramatic coming out my brother did. For me, that’s where the distinction of being a gay man is different, and I think of Circus not as an LGBTQ story but a gay male story. I think it’s about gay male culture.

Josh’s struggle is something I learned about while making the film, and it was important for me to highlight his gayness. I’ve identified as every letter except the T at some point in my life and dated across the gender spectrum, but I didn’t make a big deal of it in the documentary because I didn’t feel that was the story to be told. My brother looked at me as someone he couldn’t relate to because I had too much going on in the “freak” world. I was hanging out with artists and countercultural people. He was mainstream and happened to be gay, and I had a reckoning with that when I made the film.

Ryan Murphy signed on after the doc played the Tribeca Film Festival. How did having his name attached change things?

It’s night and day. Ryan has ambitions to turn it into a TV show, and that’s what the attachment really signifies. His genius is how he weaves real stories into fictional television and makes them so interesting, especially what he did with Pose. So it’s changed from being a quirky little L.A. story to a Ryan Murphy story, which means everyone in the world is going to know about it. I’m so honored that he would find this story as worthy as something like Pose.

Who should play your mother in the series?

Ryan ran a few actresses by me. I’d be shocked if he got Meryl Streep to do it, but Ryan can get anybody he wants to do anything. I think it would be fascinating to see who plays her—an obnoxious loudmouthed Jewish lady—but great actresses can play anyone. As much as she has driven me crazy, my mom would be a great, rich role for anyone to take on. I’d love to direct an episode myself!

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Karen (left) and Barry Mason in Circus of Books.

How are you and Buck spending the pandemic?

Well, we learned all about the craziness that comes out of Florida since everything we seem to watch is an episodic series about trashy insane criminal people. Tiger King, McMillions. We’re also working on a podcast together, and Buck has products he ships out. His business is actually thriving, as strange as it sounds. I’m working on preproduction for my next films since I can have meetings from home. But it’s devastating to go outside and see so many places we love in L.A. shuttered, and it’s really devastating for the homeless population.

You have a new music video for your song “Give You Everything,” which plays over the end credits of Circus of Books and premieres with it on April 22. What else is going on musically?

Yes, the song features Buck and Peaches. You can find it on Spotify. I’m working on music as much as ever, and I have a musical film called The End Stage of Stars I hope to get in production soon. It’s a cosmic-themed movie that has original music and deals with gender in a spectacular, unique way, and my co-writer is an amazing trans woman activist and actress, Rain Valdez, who worked on Transparent.
 

Has there been any talk of someone opening a new Circus of Books, or an equivalent?

The old WeHo Circus actually did get taken over by Chi Chi LaRue and was given a whole new, updated look and called Chi Chi LaRue’s Circus. Tragically, coronavirus hit and they’re in the situation every retail store is, which is really sad.

Do you and your parents regret that they didn’t move their porn business online since that might have kept the store afloat?

In some ways I think my mom probably does, because she could have made a lot more money and she’s a total businesswoman. But they were so nervous about getting a federal indictment [for obscenity], and I’d much rather them not be in jail than have more money from online sales. Also, they’re retired and doing activism for PFLAG, and that’s where they can do their best work. They’re showing other parents that you can come around and overcome any religious bias [towards gays], which is what my mom did.

Circus of Books premieres April 22 on Netflix.

Lawrence is a New York-based travel and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Time Out New York and The New York Post.
@LawrenceFerber