An L.A. LGBTQ Icon Gets the Documentary Treatment

Circus of Books_1 - Publicity - H 2019
Rachel Mason

Months after owners Karen and Barry Mason shuttered the 58-year-old Circus of Books in West Hollywood, their daughter chronicles the business' fight for free speech and impact on her family.

Growing up in West Hollywood, Rachel Mason learned not to talk much about what her parents did for a living. When asked, she said that her parents owned a "bookstore," which was about as far as she knew, having been instructed to keep her eyes to the ground in certain areas of her family's brick-and-mortar business on Santa Monica Blvd. It was only when Mason told some adolescent friends the store's name — Circus of Books — that she learned it sold porn, dirty magazines and sex toys in addition to books. Years later, a college gender studies professor would offer another revelation: The store was "the most important gay store in America," an L.A. icon for LGBTQ culture and free speech.

"That blew my mind," Mason says now. Following her professor's advice, Mason began conducting interviews and documenting the store's rich history, which included an FBI raid, a court battle her parents kept secret and friends and employees lost to the AIDS crisis. The result of her research, the documentary Circus of Books, premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival today at the Village East Cinema and follows the store from 2014 until it closed earlier this year (two previous Circus of Books stores in Sherman Oaks and Silver Lake closed in the late 1990s and 2016, respectively). Ahead of its premiere, Netflix snapped up the film and disclosed that Pose and Feud producer Ryan Murphy, who has a new mega-deal with Netflix, is executive producing. Terms of the deal were not disclosed. 

While the film chronicles the rise and fall of the small, family-owned business, it also tracks the business' effect on the broader LGBTQ community and on the Masons themselves. RuPaul's Drag Race queen Alaska, Larry Flynt and Jeff Stryker discuss how the store provided a gathering place for gay men in Los Angeles, while Mason also tracks how her younger brother slowly came to terms with his own identity as a gay man and her mother, Karen, confronted her faith and its approach to homosexuality during Circus of Books' run. "This is a film about changing attitudes," Mason says.

Before the film's New York premiere, Mason spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about business realities for L.A. bookstores in 2019, her parents' "balancing act" in raising a family while defending free speech and the radical importance of gay publications in the 20th century.

Why tell your family's story and the bookstore's story now?

Being in L.A., and so immersed in that world, it never felt to me like a story for a film until I left L.A., actually. I went to Yale and happened to mention [the store] to my gay and lesbian studies course professor, Jonathan D. Katz. He said to me, "Wait a minute, your parent owns Circus of Books? You know that's like the most important store in gay history in America?" And I was like, "Are you serious? No, it's just my parents' weird little store in L.A.." That blew my mind. That was my first inkling, and he just said flat out, "Rachel, you really should do something about it." He threw the idea out there that this was worth documenting. So I just let that sit and it wasn't on my career agenda for quite a long time.

And then in 2015 the Silver Lake store started to fail in a huge way, and my mom was just like, "We're closing, it's definitely going to close." It was the reality check of the store closing that really led me to think, "If I don't do this now, it's not going to happen and no one else is going to do it." With the encouragement of a small team of people that are the core of my producers that are on the film, I was able to get the wherewithal to get it started. I was beginning to feel [the idea] out in 2014, but 2015 is when we got a fiscal sponsor and donors to really help just get the project set up. 

Did you suspect that the bookstore would close soon when you began the documentary? When did you start to realize that would be the case? Did that change the way you told your story, or saw your story?

I did have a lot of inklings, but as you see in the film with Alaska from RuPaul's Drag Race, she says, "They were always thinking that the store was going to close," so I was really shocked when it did close. We definitely just kept filming and were constantly curious — what's going to happen, is this real? Is she actually going to close it? It did feel like a constant refrain, but it's a long, drawn-out, tedious process. It's this sort of miracle of editing when you find, oh man, we really caught this one scene where the store is closing and the employee is being let go and I happened to jump in and get a very quick interview with him that was unexpected.

In some ways, I think the film offers a glimpse into what it's like to close a business, any business. It's a really huge struggle and my mom's struggle has nothing to do with porn, it has to do with employees. They're almost like a second family and you care a lot about them. They're people you spent years with, you've had ups and downs with, and my mom has a tremendous amount of care and concern. I just heard her agonizing about things related to pensions and health insurance, really taking care of people.

In your own words, what were the reasons behind the bookstore closing?

I think there's the reality of the Internet, but I think there's also the reality of my parents being at the end of their career. I think if they were millennials inheriting this crazy business, they would have found some interesting hybrid niche of, like, a coffee shop, marijuana shop, porn browsing [something like that]. They've been at it almost 40 years. They weren't about to energize a whole new [business]. The next phase of the store, and it's really interesting whether it's going to succeed or not, is that it's now going to be a Chi Chi LaRue store. Chi Chi, I would say, is part of the hipper, more with-it generation of a store that has luxury items and sex toys and the more relevant things that people might show up in the store to buy when they want a retail experience.

Circus of Books was part of the fabric of LA's more gritty past with the stores that had this almost negligible aesthetic: They existed without [paying] a lot of attention to some of the things that newer stores do. And I think maybe that was part of the charm; it's really like a dying, sleazy kind of business that I always found kind of beautiful, and I think a lot of artists love. I think of people like John Waters, for example, who have a love for the irreverent and the casual. I think of stores like Trashy Lingerie: I always loved that weird haphazard window display they have with all these mannequins, you know? That feels to me like a part of a different era of retail in L.A., and I think my parents' store was part of that previous era.

Did your parents ever offer to you or any of your siblings to take the store over?

I think if there was one person that might make the most sense it would be me, but I have two strikes against me: I've never been great at business, although I have to say now that I've made a pretty significant movie, I've learned a lot of stuff about business. I think that they [also] had aspirations for us, like what happens with immigrant kids. My parents have a very nose-to-the-grindstone immigrant work ethic even though they are not first generation. My dad came from a serious working-class background; his dad was a bus driver, his mom had a dry-cleaning business, I think they hoped that we would do what we have done, we've all gotten college degrees and we've moved into "legitimate" work.

What gap did Circus of Books fill in the Los Angeles and West Hollywood community?

That's truly a question for the customers. They were so articulate in answering that question. On the day that the store closed, it was a nonstop string of people that kept coming throughout the day and just saying things and really, not even kidding, just standing in the doorway crying. For the people who were older, in their 70s, they talked about that store like it was truly a lifeline, like it was not just a store. It was that they walked in there and they felt that they're not the only gay person in the whole wide world. I think that was the real legacy of this store, that it existed at a time when there was nothing else for a group of people that was not just marginalized, but criminalized.

I think for the younger generation it became more a relic of the past — a fun, weird place. My friends loved it because it was so quirky and great and free-spirited and lacked any of the pretension of any store trying to have any kind of identity. It was just a baked-in identity — which maybe you only get when you've existed so long and never changed your decor.

Why is it important to commemorate these dying institutions through stories like your parents'?

The particular story that I'm telling is pretty unique in that it had its own challenges as something that was underground and on the edge of legality when it began: It really existed for a marginalized group of people. The story that I wanted to tell in this film is about the challenge of having [this as] a family business. It's a personal documentary about the way that I came to learn what my parents' crazy balancing act was. I only ever saw my mom as l a soccer mom; she was just hardcore about us going to school and doing activities. I had no clue she was running a business and she was getting into trouble with that business, and that this business was there for a marginalized group of people that was dying at one point of AIDS, that were having all kinds of crises.

What do you hope viewers walk out of your film thinking or feeling?

In some ways, I feel like this is a film about changing attitudes. One thing you see in the film is the way in which my mother's attitude changed over many years. It's [also] a film that I hope serves to tell a piece of history that hasn't been well-documented, the LGBTQ, still-to-be-written historical legacy. [Homosexuality] was illegal, it was marginalized, people were killed and horribly abused. When that happens, you don't end up having a history that's celebrated on coins and monuments, you have a history that is really underground. This story is to me about the heroism of the people who published material the Bob Mizer way, way back in the day. As weird as it may sound, people like Larry Flynt were actual champions for the LGBT cause simply by helping to distribute a magazine that wouldn't have wide distribution. Those gay publications were so important to people.

In the late '70s, that was still really radical and really new. I just hope to be able to tell some of that history, and to also hopefully to shed light on the fact that [despite moral judgements about the adult industries,] my parents are extremely moral people and my mother herself is very religious — I think that was part of her struggle and also part of her identity. I think being religious in my estimation is being good to your fellow humans, and I think that's what this store is about.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.