The unlikely history of a gay porn landmark

Filmmaker Rachel Mason on the Netflix doc she made about her parents who ran a gay porn empire

Circus of Books

By Chris Azzopardi, July 2020 Issue.

Gay porn is not what straight, religious-conservative married couple Barry and Karen Mason thought they’d become known for. But for over 35 years, they owned a bookstore that sold videos like Confessions of a Two Dick Slut and Meat Me at the Fair in West Hollywood. And now thanks to their daughter, filmmaker and artist Rachel Mason, her parents’ story is a Netflix documentary.

For the couple, however, selling and producing gay porn was just business as usual. Hard times forced Karen, a former journalist, and Barry, a former special visual effects engineer who worked on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, to think fast, so they took over Circus of Books, which became a queer cultural institution. Karen and Barry, who still own the building even though Circus of Books closed in 2019, would go on to become wealthy LGBTQ activists and PFLAG parents.

But in the 1980s, the business was kept a secret from their three children, including Rachel and her gay brother Josh, who appear in Circus of Books along with former porn star Jeff Stryker and RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars winner Alaska Thunderfuck. TV titan Ryan Murphy executive produced the film.

Here, Mason discusses the power of straight parents as activists, what it says about porn that celebs who shopped at the store won’t openly admit it, and the awkward dinner table talk her parents have with her partner, transsexual porn star and activist Buck Angel.

It’s funny to hear your mom say in the doc, “I don’t know what you’re gonna make out of all this filming. No one is going to be interested in this.” And now, of course, it’s on Netflix for the world to see.

That’s her whole constant mantra: No one’s gonna care, this is not interesting to anybody. I think that was her way of having a smokescreen. Of course it’s actually fucking amazing that I’m like, “Deep penetration on these videos you made sent me to college.” How could that not be interesting? You know, I think it’s her way of misdirecting, but also at the same time it could also be true for her: It was not interesting. This was a boring job for many years. (Laughs.)

Rachel Mason at work.

It’s like when she walks by the dildo wall but won’t look at it.

(Laughs.) I do have to say there’s a part of her, sadly, that is really kind of prudish and disgusted by her whole thing. I find that offensive and sad because I love and appreciate everything that she was involved in, and I actually think that the work she did was critical.

Do your parents bond with Buck over porn? 

It was really funny the first time we had a family dinner. My mom said, “Do not bring this up to my grandma,” my mother’s mother who is still alive. “Do not bring up the business at the dinner table tonight.” And of course, we’re sitting there and there’s dead silence; then my mom was like, “Buck, I have a question. I got an email today from one of these distributors — do you ever work with this guy?” I’m like, “Mom! You totally outed him as being in the business!” She’s just so business-focused that it’s kind of hilarious. But my parents and Buck can just talk shop together, and I can listen and be kind of coming up with the sequel in my head, or like an episode for the TV series.

How do they feel about being Netflix-famous?

In a weird way it’s a good time to be an anonymous celebrity because everyone’s wearing masks. (Laughs.) You know, my mom’s a totally reluctant celebrity, if you want to call her that. She really is a subject right now. And I think on the one hand it’s uncomfortable for her when people walk up and know her for something she kept a secret for several years.

Your mom seems like the kind of person who really knows how to command a room.

She got up on the stage at Outfest and just said, “Had I known you guys were all going to be here, I never would’ve agreed to doing this.” The audience is laughing and it’s like, “Mom, you just got an audience of 2,000 people to laugh.” But she’s like, “Now can I go? I don’t like this.” (Laughs.) That’s part of her sheer brilliant comedic instincts. She kind of knows, like Woody Allen, that she has this kind of nebbish-y, over-the-top insulting quality that is just so funny.

And her dynamic with your father — the way she interjects when he doesn’t tell the full story — is really hysterical.

I think that’s part of their comedic duo vibe that is so amazing. I have to say, I milked it for all that it’s worth in the documentary. (Laughs.)

How did the idea for the documentary come to you?

It really began in 2004. I had taken a lesbian and gay studies class, as it was called at the time, and it was about just sort of the history of LGBTQ experience. So the teacher, Jonathan D. Katz, a very prominent media studies scholar, his focus was on Robert Mapplethorpe, specifically gay imagery and photography, and the art that wasn’t above ground. It was sort of this subculture, and I remember my parents had Robert Mapplethorpe books in their store and I mentioned it to him. I said, “You know my parents carried his stuff?” And he was like, “What was their store?” And I said Circus of Books and he said, “Wow, Rachel, that is the most important store on the West Coast and that store really helped me to come out.” I think he was himself from LA; I was at Yale at the time. I was like, “What do you know about Circus of Books?”

I didn’t know my parents’ little LA weirdo store would’ve been something anyone would’ve known this far east, let alone at a fancy school like Yale. So it just gave me an impression that I needed to do something about it. And he said, “This is part of gay history. It’s not just a little store. It’s actually the historical record because gay history didn’t have a chance to be documented because it was underground.” So when the store started to close in 2015, that’s when I started really documenting it in earnest.

And your mom had low expectations. She didn’t think this film would amount to anything.

Oh yeah — no.

What does she think of the finished film?

She just feels like I did a good job, basically. And that it just would be better if it were about anyone except her. (Laughs.) One thing she says that I have some sympathy for: “I don’t picture myself looking this age.” I’m following her around at age 75. A lot of it is unflattering because she let me follow her around, and she’s, like, squatting down to pick up DVDs (laughs). It’s kind of funny. I kept being like, “Mom, turn this way. I don’t like this angle. It’s not good.” But at the same time, I’m chasing her — she moves like a motherfucker!

Did your mom ever try to control the narrative?

Kind of. But I know how to work around that.

What was it like to learn about Josh’s struggle to come out during the making of the film?

That was one of the interviews that actually I reshot because I had shot the film in a different way going into it. I was working hand in hand with Cynthia Childs, my producer, and I was going to be more of a distant subject. When I started to cut the film together, the most poignant moments were in all of the different interviews when people would look at the camera or look at me and say, “Your dad was going to go to jail.” I was like, “Shit, they’re talking to me; I need to actually be seen and heard on the other side of this.” I didn’t get that with my interview with Josh.

The second time around, I did the questions, and I didn’t expect my own reaction to be so shocked by what he said. I was really so blown away, and it was so horrible to hear these things and to look back at myself with a sense of shame that I so was a self-absorbed teenager who loved everything gay and was wanting it, and here’s my poor little brother who’s trying to be so perfect and trying to hold it all together. And here he has this freaky, insane sister being an artist, and maybe that’s what gay looks like to him. And the store is also this crazy place where a lot of people died of AIDS, and he sees that world. So he’s caught in between these images that are not realistic of what he could have for himself as a gay man.

What was it like to hear the stories of your parents’ relationship with those who were dying of AIDS, and how they kind of became surrogate parents to them because their families disowned them?

I feel like that is part of the real untold story and untold chapter in gay history — it’s not exclusive to my parents. When you think back to the AIDS crisis, these men were dying in these horrible situations alone in the hospital because people were afraid to touch them. The bravery of not just my parents but all the different people who would show up for these men was so profound. I really have to say I look at my parents in a really heroic light myself at that moment, but I also think back on the fact that there were other people like them.

Before our call, I was talking to my dad. There’s been some tension among family members on Facebook, and we’re still having a hard time wrapping our heads around the fact that some of them still support Donald Trump. 

I’ll tell you: My partner and lover is Buck Angel and his parents are Trump supporters. What I think is really fascinating is he talks to them and he actually fully gets into it. I think it’s important to address it full-on and be like, “OK, you can support the guy who is gonna actually take your son’s right to exist.” If you have the stomach to engage, it’s actually a good idea to engage.

Your parents remind me of my dad.

Is your family Christian or religious?

Yeah. They’re Christian and Catholic. My dad identifies as a Baptist, but he supports me and he lets people know he supports me.

That is really powerful, if he does let people know that he supports you.

Well, our conversation stemmed from a Facebook war with family members who are anti-LGBTQ. My dad commented and said to them that he supports me and who I am, and that what they’re saying could potentially harm LGBTQ people.

That’s very powerful when people like your dad and my mom similarly do that because those are the most important activists. You and me being queer and waving our rainbow flag is actually sort of not really tipping the scale for those people; it’s people like your dad and my mom who are actually saying, “Look, I am still gonna go to church and I’m gonna find it in the Bible where Jesus says we can love everybody. And in the Old Testament, where you can reinterpret the word, the actual definition of what it means to lie down with another man, in fact, and totally recognize that there’s the possibility that we have a wrong interpretation here.”

The film comes at a time when queer spaces are vulnerable to the pandemic and are at risk of closing. Having gone through that experience with your parents, what are you feeling?

First off, my heart’s breaking for all the businesses. I look back at the strange timing: I could’ve never predicted that I’d be making a story about a story that’s unfolding currently, and that we’re in the time of a pandemic and the documentary is entirely basically based in the time of a pandemic for the gay community. It’s almost like we’re living in that active moment where everyone is deciding the thing that you see my mom trying to decide when she’s talking about whether or not she can close the business. People are wrestling with that. All businesses.

Did you ever wonder why the store catered to gay men and not queer women?

I guess that’s sort of interesting. Certainly there were lesbian clerks and women customers, and there were trans people. They had trans clerks and trans customers, and in fact they had Buck Angel work there – the very first trans guy to basically do porn at all. So there was a variety. But probably the vast majority were gay men. I think it’s because that exact neighborhood was called Boystown (laughs) and it was located in a gay boys’ neighborhood. I’m not an expert so you can’t quote me on this, but it’s pretty well known that men are the predominant consumers of pornography, especially in a store where you have to walk in and physically appear. Also, it was a meeting ground. I think it just naturally became a hotspot for gay culture.

What did you find out from Ryan Murphy about shopping at the store?

Ryan basically said that store was so important to all gay men in LA. I think he was just no different. In fact, Ryan happens to be a very famous, powerful gay man — and I won’t name names — but think of any gay man who was alive at that time in Hollywood and they no doubt went into that store.

Did you try to interview any of these other men?

Yeah, I’ve reached out to a few – again, I won’t say the names – and I’ve noticed things have leaked out here and there and I’m like, “Wow, I don’t know who said that. The gossip mill. I will just say think of a (famous) gay man over 50 and they were in Circus of Books.”

So the gossip is true?

Absolutely. And celebrities who aren’t even straight or gay or male. Rose McGowan posted that she loved the store’s selection of Italian Vogue, and Kathy Griffin posted about how she did her Christmas shopping at the store. So the celebrities who’ve come out, that’s awesome and fun and cool. It does speak volumes that people can’t just jump out and wave the flag of, “Yeah, I went to that store; it’s a porn store.” Because porn still has a stigma. I think that’s what we’re looking at right here, and I really hope to be part of the change that destigmatizes it.