Barry and Karen are your typical college educated Jewish couple with three kids who happened to secretly own and operate a hard-core gay book store from 1976 to 2006. 30 years! Secretly because of the stigma of material sold in the store as well as the anti-pornography legislation which pushed this community into the shadows. Let’s go back to where it all started…
Barry Mason started in film school at UCLA and worked on films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and the original Star Trek films in the special effects department. Karen started out as journalist covering stories about criminal justice, human tragedy, and stories with an underlying element of the human condition. While Barry was working in film, he invents a piece of medical equipment to be used in dialysis machines; however, the medical malpractice insurance is more than what they were making per year so they sell their invention and look for something else to provide for their growing family. One day, Karen’s reading the newspaper and sees a full page ad from Larry Flint (Hustler magazine, corp) looking for magazine distributors. Karen showed it to Barry thinking it could be something to keep food on the table and money in the bank while they figure out their next step. Little did they know, this decision would change the course of the their lives and countless others not only in the community but across the United States.
Shortly after getting involved with Larry Flint, they discovered one of the stores they were distributing to was under serious financial mismanagement which gave them the opportunity to buy the store, change the name from Book Circus to Circus of Books, and start on a business journey that would change their lives. Circus of Books is a hard core gay porn and adult literature bookstore which had locations in LA and eventually Silver Lake. It sold hard core gay videos, books, magazines, greeting cards, various sexual health products, and also snacks and various misc non-sex items.
Karen and Barry kept the previous employees to teach them what they needed to know about products and films. What they learned was adult material was expensive and sometimes illegal but there was a community out there who needed it. This was an underground industry with strong backlash by conservative groups and laws which put those involved in the industry, whether they be consumers or content producers, at risk of jail or injury. Karen and Barry rarely shared they were actual owners of the store to their friends and children due to the nature of the content. It wasn’t that they were ashamed of the material or people who produced or consumed it, it was the legality and stigma of the industry.
The business really took off when they started Video 10 distribution which included Starker Films starring porn star Jeff Starker specializing in hard core gay films. They didn’t “make” the films, nor watch them; however, they acted as producers and couldn’t keep the films on the shelf even though they were turning out 2 films a week. Circle of Books became the largest distributor of gay porn in the United States. Then, the AIDS epidemic arrived. No one understood it or how to fight it. It became known as a “gay” disease due to the largest infected demographic at the time being gay men. Karen and Barry were heart broken many times, not just from losing so many wonderful people–including employees–but also from not understanding how parents could turn away from their sons who were dying or had died in such a horrible way.
The AIDS epidemic pushed certain conservative groups to push for stronger legislation against the gay community which included anti-pornography laws. Anti-pornography commissions pushed laws against pornography without giving those in the industry a voice in the process. Sting operations were conducted by the FBI to bring federal charges against those distributing pornography and Barry and Karen were targets of one such sting. They were brought up on charges of distributing across state lines and Barry was faced with the prospect of pleading guilty to a federal crime and going to jail at a time when even his own children did not know the type of content he was selling. They were advised by their attorney to stay in business and fight the charges. As the case pended, President Clinton was elected, and a change was made in federal prosecutors which upheld the right to freedom of speech. Karen later states her takeaway in the process is that the first amendment is protected in the most extreme kind of speech and material which protects all our rights to freedom of speech.
Through all of this, Barry and Karen’s son, Joshua, grew up thinking “gay” was a bad word and things associated with the word were wrong. He spent his young life trying to ignore being gay. It wasn’t until college when he finally came to terms with his sexuality. When he came out to his parents, Karen realized she wasn’t prepared to have a gay child. She could work with gay people, be friends with gay people…she had no judgement about the people who shopped at her store. It was okay for other people to be gay, but her son? Karen realized she had religious views that needed to change. She took bible study classes, she searched and learned about herself and her faith which reshaped her beliefs and feelings about her son. She refused to give up on the relationship she wanted with her son. For Barry, he accepted his son no matter what. He was only upset that Josh kept it a secret for so long.
As time goes on, Karen and Barry are faced with an aging market and evolving digital system for acquiring material. They struggle with letting go of employees and the fate of what will happen to the community they’ve become so close to. Business is bad and expense of keeping it open forces them to close. You can’t sell what you can get for free on the internet. So, it was with sadness, Karen and Barry close the doors, throw boxes and boxes of material in the dumpster, and say goodbye to employees.
Karen and Barry no longer have the store but in the 30 years of owning and operating the store and learning more about gender variations, they’ve become LGBTQ activists with PFLAG in California and working with parent of gays support groups to help parents understand and support their gay children.
The employees, Larry Flint, Jeff Stryker, and various other people including Drag Queen superstar Alaska, say Barry and Karen Mason and Circus of Books was the place to meet like-minded people and feel a sense of belonging. The gay community during those times was a place of acceptance, even in the shadows. While the internet and dating apps have taken the place of specialty stores, gay bars, and pick up spots– the shadows have now become virtual eliminating the face to face interaction and camaraderie. For others like LGBT activist Alexei Romanoff, the closing of Circle of Books is the closing of an era but in many ways people are more together than they have ever been in the gay community with the passage of gay marriage. He explains a lot has changed since The Black Cat, a gay bar in Santa Monica, was raided New Year’s Eve in 1966 which led to demonstrations against police brutality. Demonstrations continued and led to a six-day riot against the police raid of Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York where 13 people were arrested and a huge riot was sparked against the police in favor of gay rights.
This documentary is more than an unlikely couple being the owners of a gay porn store. It speaks about an era and a community of people who still struggle in many parts of the country with gender variations, definitions of sexuality, and being accepted as a person regardless of orientation. The courage of those trying to live their life, facing the hardship of not only being labeled “bad” but illegal, diseased, and obscene as well as beaten, killed, jailed, turned away from family and friends, or discriminated against for their sexuality or orientation.
What I found interesting is how little Barry and Karen’s children and their friends and family knew about the bookstore. This couple is the cutest together and why shouldn’t they be the ones behind Circus of Books? They have no agenda and it’s obvious listening to their employees, customers, and anyone related to the store, Barry and Karen are loved and respected for being so accepting of a community who’s history has been bent on keeping them in the shadows. It wasn’t taboo to them; although, they felt the weight of the stigma from others outside the community.
I felt like I wanted to be friends with Barry and Karen. To support their endeavors in supporting the gay community. I wanted to champion their ability to see past the stigma and find real community. I suppose their lack of interference in the inner workings of the production company made it possible for it to be so successful. If they had tried to impose their personal beliefs or opinions, it wouldn’t have made it. They led the experts lead and in doing so, the community flourished, they grew a thriving business, and sent their kids to college. Isn’t that what most people want? Community, financial stability, and a future for their kids?
While Circle of Books focuses on the owners of an iconic gay bookstore, the story is really about acceptance, freedom of speech, and the human need for belonging, love, and community. Available on Netflix. Watch the trailer below: