The Family Circus

The unlikely owners of Circus Books became heroes in the queer community and defenders of free speech nationwide. As Karen and Barry Mason prepare to shutter the nearly 40-year-old adult bookstore, their daughter Rachel wants to make sure nobody forgets her parents’ radical legacy.

Rachel Mason at her parents’ West Hollywood store. Photo by Ed Carrasco.

Karen and Barry Mason’s bare-bones office has old rolling desk chairs alongside metal folding ones and desktop PCs—nothing fancy. It’s in the back of Circus of Books, the adult book and video store the couple ran out of a regal 1905 storefront with a lit-up marquee above the door for nearly 40 years.

“You don’t have to believe us, but I don’t think we’ve ever watched any of this,” says Karen on a sunny afternoon in August. An ad for a “2017 Bareback Mix,” featuring two nude men, hovers on the computer screen behind her.

“I see the covers,” says Barry.

“Maybe I watched one once,” Karen considers. “It’s all the same and it’s pretty boring, but it’s a huge draw for people.”

The couple closed Circus of Books’ second location, in Silver Lake, in 2016, and plan to close this one, in West Hollywood, on February 1. 

The couple closed Circus of Books’ second location, in Silver Lake, in 2016, and plan to close this one, in West Hollywood, on February 1. 

At its height in the 1980s and 1990s, Circus of Books was among the nation’s most prolific distributors of gay porn. Despite the Masons’ professed disinterest in their merchandise, they’ve managed to become hometown heroes and national champions of free speech. They supported ailing employees, financially and personally, during the AIDS crisis; fought for First Amendment rights during the George H.W. Bush administration; and gave emerging visual artists a platform through Circus Gallery, which they ran for four years out of their video distribution warehouse.

But the once-thriving business, a landmark both in Los Angeles and in the larger queer community, began gradually declining after the porn industry moved online (the Masons’ lawyer advised them early on not to sell their products online, and they took his advice). The couple closed Circus of Books’ second location, in Silver Lake, in 2016, and plan to close this one, in West Hollywood, on February 1.

“It’s not at all bittersweet,” says Karen. “When we started this business, when we took it over, it really played a role, and it doesn’t meet the same need anymore at all, which is fine, really.”

Left to their own devices, the Masons would prefer to shutter the store quietly. But their daughter, artist and musician Rachel Mason, has other plans. She began working on the documentary Circus of Books nearly four years ago. It will premier in April, just after the store closes for good, and is the product of a funny family alliance: between an adventurous, experiment-loving daughter and her outwardly practical, proudly boring parents, who, despite their self-images, are just as unconventional as their child.

Rachel Mason was well into her adulthood before she realized  her parents had a cult following. Her awakening came in October 2013, as she sat in a 500-seat New York University auditorium, anxious that her personal life was about to collide with the New York performance art world in which she’d found a home. Scholars and artists took turns on stage discussing L.A. photographer Bob Mizer, whose films and photographs depicted homoerotic sex scenes. Mizer had newly piqued the interest of art historians and gallerists, and the speakers treated him with critical distance, like, Rachel recalled, “he’d been dead 100 years.” (He died in 1992.)

Then Rachel’s parents appeared on screen at the front of the auditorium. At the request of artist Billy Miller, the symposium’s organizer, Rachel had earlier recorded them via Skype. From their bedroom office in West Hollywood, her mother sat close to the camera, her father leaned back in his chair.

“I don’t think we’re going to say anything that’s interesting,” said Karen.

“We don’t know anything,” said Barry.

Barry and Karen Mason outside Circus of Books. Photo by Ed Carrasco.

But soon they were talking about Mizer with an ease no one on stage possessed. “You know, Bob Mizer went to jail. We didn’t, although there was a chance at one time that we could have,” said Karen. “Just all the energy you pour into protecting yourself from these prosecutions. They are tremendously draining and time consuming. So any artist like him who had to fight this fight was completely distracted from his art for a very long time.”

The Masons’ frankness changed the mood, inviting spontaneous applause.

“I never grasped it until that moment,” says Rachel over breakfast one morning at the King’s Road Cafe in West Hollywood, not far from her parents’ store. “Here they were, these heroes.”

Rachel began working on the documentary about her parents soon after moving from New York back to Los Angeles. Filmmaker Cynthia Childs initially served as producer and co-director, and Rachel at first saw herself as a facilitator, someone with the inside knowledge to help the project along. Then, two years in, Childs left the project, and Rachel found herself pulled deeper and deeper into the world of her parents’ store—a world that resonated with her own interests far more than she realized.

The Masons acquired Circus of Books by opportunistic accident. Barry’s medical supply business faltered, they had a young child, they saw a newspaper ad: Larry Flynt needed L.A. distributors for Hustler. They started supplying magazines to local stores, including what was then known as Book Circus on Santa Monica Boulevard, which always sold out of Blueboy, Flynt’s gay erotica property. When Book Circus began struggling to pay the bills, then faced eviction, the Masons were confused. Suspecting that business was good—the owner, it turned out, had drug problems and mafia debts—they contacted the landlord, offering to pay half the rent if they could take over the lease during the eviction process. Six months later, the Masons became the store’s proprietors, tweaking its name to distance themselves from the former proprietor and his debts, and rehiring the same employees.

“There was a real possibility one of us was going to have to go to jail… And I thought it was going to have to be Barry, because I was very involved in planning our son’s bar mitzvah.”

Karen Mason

Business grew steadily throughout the 1980s. Then the Masons got swept up in a federal effort to shut down L.A.’s adult video distributors by targeting them in less liberal parts of the country. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, appointed in 1988 by then-President Ronald Reagan, spearheaded the effort, using the U.S. Postal Service to intercept packages from adult distributors. In 1990, a trio of California producers and distributors were indicted on charges of interstate transportation of obscene material after getting caught shipping VHS tapes—including the titles Kinky Vision and Shaved Sinners—from Los Angeles, California to Dallas, Texas. The Masons were indicted on the same charges after shipping material to Pennsylvania in 1993. “At first we said, ‘Let them take anything they want and we’re going to get out of this business and disappear,’” remembers Karen.

But their lawyer, John Weston, who in 1990 described the federal prosecutions to the LA Times as  “a national censorial stranglehold on the citizens of America,” told the Masons to fight. The U.S. government, Weston knew, did not actually want to lose their tax dollars. He defended the freedoms of adult industries in front of the Supreme Court multiple times in his career; some cases were more successful than others.

Barry Mason Enterprises Inc. vs. USA took two years to battle in court.

The Masons told no one about their indictment. They feared friends at their synagogue would find out about the other life they were leading during business hours. “There was a real possibility one of us was going to have to go to jail,” recalls Karen, “And I thought it was going to have to be Barry, because I was very involved in planning our son’s bar mitzvah.”

In the end, neither of the Masons served any time. Instead, Barry agreed to a pre-trial diversion—essentially probation without a conviction—and the charges were dropped.

A shelf at Circus Books. Photo by Ed Carrasco.

“We learned then that the First Amendment is fought on the fringes,” says Karen. Fighting such charges was, in her view, a way to protect more vulnerable potential offenders. “They can’t go after people like [Robert] Mapplethorpe”—the photographer embroiled in late-1980s, early 1990s obscenity accusations due to sexually explicit work—“because they have to deal with you.”

Occasionally, Weston asked the Masons to contribute financially to other cases important to the industry, and the couple obliged. Looking back, they see Weston, not themselves, as the valiant ones. “We didn’t welcome the fight and we didn’t feel like we were fighting a good fight at all,” says  Karen. “At some point Rachel discovered all this and thought, ‘My parents are kind of neat, quirky people.’ Well, we didn’t feel neat, quirky at all.”

When their children were young, Karen and Barry Mason told Rachel and her brothers, Josh and Micah, to say they didn’t know the name of their parents’ store. Later, when this lie became less believable, the children said their parents were in real estate. In the 1990s, Rachel watched queer artists perform at Tsunami Coffeehouse at Sunset Junction, a venue adjoining the basement of her parents’ Silver Lake store. Her parents had for years been working in close proximity to performers who shaped her trajectory as an artist.

“It’s like subconsciously I’ve absorbed some of the counterculture of it,” she says of Circus of Books. 

Her own risk-taking as an artist started early. In 2001, as an undergraduate at UCLA, she dressed in a silver bodysuit and matching helmet, as a character she called Terrestrial Being. She scaled the university’s red brick arts building in costume, her figure androgynous, alien and small against an immense wall in the video of the act.

“She asked me about it after she had done it,” recalls Barry sitting in the back office at the West Hollywood store. “And I said, ‘Just use a rope or something.’” She used no harness or support.

“The same week, we got two letters from UCLA,” says Karen. “One was that she had made the Dean’s List and the other—and they sent this huge book of rules—that she had broken the rules by scaling this building and it was a very serious infraction.” 

The Masons opened Circus Gallery with artist John Knuth at its helm three years after Rachel finished her MFA at Yale University. Karen had been visiting Chinatown galleries when her daughter came to town, and thought, “We have a better space than these,” she says.

Knuth, who had already staged a few art shows amidst the Circus of Books merchandise, was tasked with paying his own salary as well as compensating artists. Rachel, who showed her drawings of the 2008 presidential candidates at Circus, convinced her mother to stick it out when artists’ and collectors’ confounding business practices made Karen want to close.  

Barry, Rachel and Karen Mason at Circus of Books. Photo by Ed Carrasco.

“Sometimes these people didn’t even care about art,” Karen says of collectors. A wealthy potential buyer would come in and say she wasn’t sure whether to hang a painting she liked in her Northern California or Aspen home, and would have her assistant touch base in six months, Karen recalls “How is an artist supposed to live in those six months?” 

The Masons did not always approve of Knuth’s installation and programming choices. When he hung a painting show sparsely, as high-end galleries often do, Knuth remembers Karen asking, “Why don’t we have paintings on every square inch of the wall?  Why don’t we have sculptures on the floor?” Now, Knuth says, “I walk into an art gallery, see three paintings on the wall and think, ‘These people are fucking rich.’”

Other shows seemed unsellable. “Dawn Kasper’s a really great example — her first show she had herself tattooed in our store,” says Karen.

“Not even tattooed, branded,” says Barry.

At her first opening at Circus Gallery in 2007, Kasper flogged herself, kneeling on the floor with a whip. Hung on the walls around her were staged photos of what she called “death scenes,” each bloody and theatrical as a Hitchcock still. In one, she faked her own death in a Culver City car crash; in another, she got thrown out in a dumpster in Zurich. This was the kind of work Circus Gallery became known for: bold, sometimes strange experiments by young artists not yet sure they belonged in the high art world. Today, there’s little doubt about the significance of many of them as contemporary artists. Kasper lived in a gallery during the 2015 Whitney Biennial and again during the 2017 Venice Biennale, her life-as-art experiment embraced at the highest echelons.

“Now she’s become this well-known artist, and I still don’t understand what she does,” says Karen. “But I felt bad because we couldn’t sell her work.”

Rachel’s parents do not always understand their daughter’s work, either. “Sometimes I think the three words I hate to hear come out of her mouth are ‘What interests me’, and off we go into some area that wasn’t expected,” says Karen.

She and Barry agreed to appear in the Circus of Books documentary because they wanted to  support their daughter’s work. “You don’t want to enable something that’s bad,” says Karen. “If she said she’s going to open a restaurant, I don’t think that we would necessarily say, ‘Well, here’s a building.’ But here she’s got these skills and she’s doing a documentary.”

They saw some clips recently.

“We watch documentaries all the time. This was very professional. It had a slow build up,” says  Barry.

“I thought it was excellent, and if it’s putting us in a perspective in time with the AIDS crisis, adult material, where gay people were thirty years ago, it’s doing a good job,” Karen says. “But the filmmakers are doing that—certainly not us.”

For Rachel, the documentary was at first more a service to her family than central to her own career.  “All I am is a conduit,” she told me two years ago, before the project all but consumed her.

Magazines for sale at Circus Books. Photo by Ed Carrasco.

Over the past five years, her art has increasingly crossed genres, becoming more dauntless in its wide-ranging ambition. Her feature-length film opera The Lives of Hamilton Fish surreally tells the stories of a politician and serial killer with the same name; her collaboration, Singularity Song, explores particle physics through dance and sound collage. She assumed for years that her sensibility came from the queer, radical mentors she discovered on her own. Now she acknowledges that some of it may come, inadvertently, from her parents.

“It’s their irreverence,” says Rachel. “Nothing is precious.”

She imagined her mother saying, “These are shelves; they hold books; we’re not going to make them nice. These are glass cases; they hold pipes.”

The store has long stocked party and smoke shop paraphernalia and sex toys, alongside their magazines and VHS tapes.

This reminds Rachel that she has to go pick up her son from her mother, who had been babysitting.

Karen has an appointment downtown to resupply the store with poppers, glass pipes filled with the nitrous oxide that give a quick, intense high.

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