Netflix doco explores conservative couple’s secret gay porn empire


circus of books netflix documentary jeff stryker
Photos: Netflix

For more than 35 years, Los Angeles bookstore and gay porn shop Circus of Books gave the city’s LGBTIQ community a space to both socialise and celebrate themselves without judgment.

And a new documentary coming to Netflix tells the incredible story of the straight, conservative, Jewish couple who bought and ran the store for decades.

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Karen and Barry Mason (pictured right) had three children who attended religious school and were unaware of their parents’ line of work.

All the Masons told friends or family was that their lucrative business was just a bookstore. However the couple were also among the largest gay porn distributors in the country at the time.

“You don’t have the luxury of not earning a living. You have to figure out what you’re going to do,” Karen explains in Circus of Books.

But she says the churchgoing couple “never felt free” to let others know what they did. “It was like a knife over our heads all the time,” she said.

The couple later joined PFLAG, however initially the Masons didn’t consider themselves activists, just everyday entrepreneurs trying to support their family.

During their time running the store, the couple witnessed the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s firsthand. The couple lost a generation of their treasured employees during the crisis.

The Circus of Books store became a community refuge, described by one local in the film as “the centre of the gay universe”.

“We lost so many,” Barry says in the film. “We’d call parents to say, ‘Your son is sick.’ The parents would just say, ‘I never want to see the guy again.’”

‘Boring, conservative’ couple became biggest gay porn distributors

Karen and Barry’s daughter, Rachel Mason, created the documentary to record the last months of the original Circus of Books store in West Hollywood.

Rachel told news.com.au her parents were “completely square, boring, religious and conservative.”

“My parents were not cool at all… I was the one who was the outsider,” she said.

“So it’s strange to think that my parents were as much part of the counter-culture as I was, even though they came at it from a much more traditional lifestyle than me.”

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The Mason children were shielded from the true nature of their parents business until the end of high school.

This was despite Circus of Books becoming the country’s largest gay porn distributors and “really fundamental” to the industry, Rachel said.

“My mum is basically a gay porn expert. I have yet to meet anyone as well versed as my mum in gay porn,” she said.

But, Rachel explained, her parents saw it as “just a business” and they “clocked in and out, and made sure the books were done.”

Authorities ‘showed up to Circus of Books with guns drawn’

However the Reagan Government’s moral crusaders did have Circus of Books in their sights.

When they mailed VHS tapes to a section of Pennsylvania where porn was illegal, the authorities pounced.

“It was bizarre. The government showed up at the shop with guns drawn, and the FBI too,” Rachel told news.com.au.

“All for shipping a VHS tape. It’s laughable now. In those days you had to buy a magazine. Now everyone’s cell phone is a giant avenue to hardcore porn.

“I later learned how close they got to jail. The irony was these anti-porn people that said [porn] was destroying families would have destroyed my family.

“My parents were doing hardcore porn but they were doing it for the most wholesome reasons – to support the family.”

Circus of Books will arrive on Netflix on Wednesday, April 22. Watch the trailer below:

For the latest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) news in Australia, visit qnews.com.au. Check out our latest magazines or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.