By Denny Patterson
Artist, filmmaker, and musician Rachel Mason is best known in the visual art and experimental music circles for her performances which often contain fantastical narratives. Striving to tell stories in a distinctive way, her unique work and collaborations interweave musical, theatrical, and narrative elements into unexpected operatic journeys.
Unlike other projects, Mason’s most recent documentary Circus of Books hit closer to home. Not only does she highlight Circus of Books, an iconic bookstore and gay porn shop that served as the epicenter for Los Angeles LGBTQ+ life and culture for nearly four decades, but she also tells the story of the shop’s proprietors, Barry and Karen, who are also Mason’s parents. It was unbeknownst to many that Circus of Books was cultivated and cared for by a straight Jewish couple with three children. Through the lens of their daughter, Circus of Books is an intimate portrait chronicling the Mason’s journey in becoming one of the biggest distributors of hardcore gay porn in the United States. Circus of Books premiered on Netflix in April 2020 and immediately gained critical acclaim because of Mason’s personal connection to the material. The film is also a contender for an Emmy and Academy Award. OutClique recently had the opportunity to chat more with Mason about the film and how this small business made a significant impact on the LGBTQ+ community.
Denny Patterson: Hi, Rachel! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me about Circus of Books. Can you begin by telling us what inspired you to create this documentary on your family?
Rachel Mason: I knew that the store was a really important cultural touchstone for the community that I have always loved and been a part of. I didn’t think it would ever close. When it came to fruition in 2014 that my mom was going to close the Silver Lake store, then the West Hollywood store fell after, it hit home that if I didn’t do this, nobody else would be able to do it. It was sort of my obligation to make this film for the community that I love and just for history in general. I feel that LGBTQ+ history is written in places like the Circus of Books, where it was underground. The history was forced underground because it was an oppressed population who had to basically do things out of the mainstream. So, that is what inspired me to make the film.
DP: And it has been well received? I’ve seen nothing but great reviews.
RM: I can’t believe how overwhelming the response has been because, truthfully, I thought it would be something that might be really appreciated in the gay community, and that would have been enough for me. I would have been totally fine with it, and that was all I expected. Circus of Books is a very niche kind of place. Not everyone knew and loved it, so I did not expect anything less or different. I figured magazines like yours would be the ones I would be talking to, so for it to be considered for an Oscar and getting coverage from The New York Times and L.A. Times, even the Wall Street Journal, it has been overwhelming to me and I was not expecting that.
DP: Yes, I heard that it was a contender for an Oscar, and even an Emmy Award. That’s fantastic!
RM: Exactly. We are basically being considered for all of the biggest awards you can get. I would have hoped when I started this process, that I would document for posterity for places like the ONE Archives and maybe wind up in an academic track where LGBTQ+, gender studies, and pornography studies professors would find the film worthy of showing to their students. So, for it to be something that mainstream straight audiences can also watch, it really goes to show you that our culture has changed as well. This is a bigger, more important film than I ever gave it credit for.
DP: Your parents took over the shop in 1982 when it was called Book Circus. How did they end up in this crazy business?
RM: As the film details, it was a confluence of events that were in many ways happenstance, luck, and pure open mindedness on the part of my parents. I say that because they were totally open minded in ways that most people wouldn’t have been back in the late ‘70s. You know, being in porn and being in the gay world were two things independent of each other that most hetero normative family raising people would not have ever gone into and would have had to be very cautious about. So, my parents connected the dots in both subcultures, and being unafraid of that was sort of this big thing that I think I always took for granted until I really started showing the film and saw audience reactions. Even just to the basic first point when they started to deliver Hustler. So, the story just begins there. They were delivering Hustler when Larry Flynt had no distributors. He came to L.A. and wanted to do things independent of the big distribution companies, so he placed an ad in the L.A. Times and my parents, I didn’t realize this until I interviewed him, were one of his best early distributors. He has such a photographic memory and he remembered them and how good they were at the business. First and foremost, he is a great businessman, but he, also like my parents, is completely unafraid of anything that was subversive. He had no problem in taking on some gay titles back when that was a completely unthinkable thing, and that’s part of what I think is this interesting allyship that ties to both capitalism and commercialism. People on one hand could say they’re making a buck wherever they could, but on the other hand, if they hadn’t been open minded in this way, the gay community would not have nationwide distribution on beloved magazine titles like Honcho and Mandate. These were such important magazines, and to think that Larry Flynt, the most straight of all people as people think of him, was the guy distributing these super important early gay titles.
DP: Initially, you and your siblings had no clues about what your parents were doing?
RM: I had a very limited understanding of what they did because they were so cagey. At least my mom, she was so cagey about everything. Then my dad was always forced to give whatever cover story my mom came up with. So, I had a limited understanding, but when I was older and started going to the store as somebody who just attended and went to look at what they had, I started asking more probing questions. That’s when I got a better understanding of what they were doing.
DP: Throughout the course of filming Circus of Books were there any big surprises or revelations that you discovered?
RM: Interestingly enough, I think some of the revelations came about. There was one, it’s not directly related to the store, but it’s the second tier and maybe the bigger and more important story of the film, which is my family’s internal dynamics. My younger brother Josh struggled so hard with his sexuality and I sort of had this shocking realization that I was just an artist kid. My whole thing was being the rebel and the outsider, weirdo, queer kid. I was the troubled kid, so I didn’t have a lot of room for my little brother in any capacity when I was in high school. When I was interviewing him, because my mom’s journey to accepting Josh was such a massive part of her later adult life and becoming an activist herself, becoming a part of P-FLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), for me, the surprising part was just putting the film together and seeing that her journey was such an important, powerful, and impactful thing, but also Josh’s journey in being a kid growing up in the ‘90s had this really difficult time. When I was interviewing him, he told me that he bought a one-way ticket and didn’t think he would come home, I started crying because I had never heard that before. It never even dawned on me that he would have those worries and fears. Then also, the reality of thinking about how our entire culture at the time, and of course, maybe it still is, was set up for gay kids to think that this could happen to them. That this is the worst possible thing and your parents will very likely not accept you. Josh saying that the dad throws the gay son out of the house in most movies, and I thought wow, but that’s not our dad. I was so overwhelmed at the revelations Josh was telling me in that interview and it made me reflect on my selfishness as a teenager and my different experience of queer culture. I was with all the outlaws and artistic vanguards while Josh was trying to be the super perfect penultimate good boy. That was a revelation for me.
DP: I think it’s amazing that through your parents’ story, you also got to tell the larger story of gay culture.
RM: Right! That’s another thing. There were many, many, many revelations, but one of the others that I did not fully comprehend was Alexei Romanoff’s direct tie to the story. Alexei is a really important hero to people that know, not just L.A.’s gay history, but gay history in general because he is one of the people that founded the Gay Pride March. He was also an early activist, and he was there at the Black Cat demonstrations which were the predecessor to Stonewall. As I was interviewing him, before becoming Circus of Books, he informed me that he owned the gay bar that was there called New Faces. New Faces was the place where during the Black Cat demonstrations, people would run to for safe haven when the police came. So, people were literally in what was to become the Circus of Books, and that puts Circus of Books right square in the middle of the most important West Coast historical movement for gay rights.
DP: Is this one of the reasons why Circus of Books is such an important site for L.A. LGBTQ+ history?
RM: That, and the West Hollywood store was there since the ‘60s. It’s so foundational for gay history because it was there before West Hollywood was even a city that was created in order to protect the gay population. I have no bones about saying that this was a more male oriented space. My parents hired people who were trans, lesbian, all varieties of the LGBTQ+ experience, but the store’s primary customer base and community were gay men, and they were completely under attack in the ‘60s and ‘70s. There were so few places for people to go and find these materials. Then in the ‘80s and ‘90s gay men were under attack by the government for not helping them during the AIDS crisis, and the AIDS crisis being the worst tragedy to befall the gay community that it’s ever experienced, my parents were there running the store and letting people who had full blown AIDS work there. So, people became aware that the store was a very safe place. I think that if there’s one act of heroism that is pretty much the most powerful. It was that my mom let the employees who had AIDS work under the table so that they would keep all of their benefits. AIDS was this unknown, mysterious, gay cancer plague, and my mom felt so sorry for these guys who were so young and all they had was this job that they loved. She thought it was really cruel that they could lose their health care. So, she let them work for cash and she felt that was worthy enough to go to jail for if it ever came to it. She felt that these people deserved their dignity.
DP: How has your family reacted to the film?
RM: [Laughs] Well, I would say everybody loves it except my mom because she doesn’t necessarily like the fact that she’s famous now. She doesn’t think she did anything to deserve it. Her feeling is that I made a really good film, but she wishes it was about anyone else. I think she’s the one person in L.A. who doesn’t like being famous.
DP: What do you hope audiences take away from Circus of Books?
RM: I love that audiences are finding their own things to see in the film. I love and hope that people just appreciate the different untold stories and heroes that might be around them. They might be all around us, we don’t know. I think that there are many heroes that the LGBTQ+ world has yet to discover and people who were there and doing the right thing. Just like when you hear of the Holocaust and you hear about people that just simply thought they should do the right thing. Throughout history, especially now where we are in this moment where we have so much divisiveness, I would hope that we can find common ground. To find true allyship and support with each other.
DP: How have your parents been doing since the shop closed?
RM: They are doing great. I think in some ways, this film has been their transition out of being small business owners for 30 years into retirement. Although, they are the kind of people that will never retire.
DP: In addition to filmmaking, you are also a musician and you were able to contribute a beautiful song to the end of the film. How did that come about?
RM: In a way, it was sort of my most creative contribution because my entire background up until making this film, including the first film that I made which was a musical, I pretty much wrote songs. I was an obsessive songwriter and performer and I was always doing things in the Indie sphere. So, I thought about the song that would be appropriate for the end credits. I wrote the song “Give You Everything” with the lyrics really embodying what I imagined if the store had a soul or a voice of its own. I really felt like that was the ethos of the store. One of my favorite lyrics is, “Let me celebrate what you don’t understand, it’s where I get the strength to be who I am,” and I heard that from so many people when they would come to the store. It was just this moment of like a real escape from the world and you could celebrate your differences and all kinds of various experiences in the store. So, that was really powerful for me to be able to do it.
DP: Do you have any upcoming projects we should be on the lookout for?
RM: Well, I sure do! It’s interesting because when things are in development, you are never sure about how much you can say, but one thing I will say that I am the most proud of right now is that I am represented by UTA (United Talent Agency) and I have this amazing agent, and I am working on developing a handful of new projects that are currently in different stages. One is a documentary and another is a doc series, and they both relate to the similar intersection of people within the world of sex, the adult industry, and religion. I feel like that’s my current slate. This intersection of sex and religion. I will also say that I wrote a musical sci-fi that is about gender and black holes. That is a project I had been developing until COVID-19 hit, but that is a project I am excited to pursue more.