Los Angeles porn store owners get the spotlight in Netflix's new Circus of Books

click to enlarge Circus of Books
Circus of Books

The new documentary Circus of Books is predicated on an intriguing and admittedly amusing bit of cognitive dissonance: One of Los Angeles' premier adult emporiums was, for decades, operated by a buttoned-up, middle-aged Jewish couple, who kept the true nature of their jobs hidden from even their closest acquaintances.

Amongst those unaware of Barry and Karen Mason's X-rated livelihood were their three children, and their daughter Rachel has now directed this touching tribute to her own parents and to their once-booming business, which finally shuttered last year.

The Masons started their careers in magazine distribution in the 1970s during a moment of financial desperation, and they soon discovered that the real money was in adult material, specifically publications catering to gay men. Their coffers overflowing, the Masons soon took over the West Hollywood adult emporium Book Circus and renamed it Circus of Books, eventually operating two locations and their own video distribution company at the height of their success.

According to the film, neither of the Masons were interested in the contents of the packages they sold — they were concerned about profits, and nothing more. Karen, in fact, held on to her conservative religious upbringing for years, even denouncing her own son when he came out of the closet.

But the Masons' prominence within L.A.'s LGBTQ+ community meant they were incidental witnesses to major historical shifts: They were on the frontlines of the AIDS epidemic, targeted by the Reagan administration's crackdown on so-called obscene material (the store was even the subject of an FBI sting, though charges were later dropped), and finally a victim of the internet's porn industry.

Like its very subjects, Circus of Books is a charming, surprisingly bittersweet film about potentially salacious material. Replace the Masons' adult shop with any family-owned business struggling to move physical media in the streaming era, and it turns out you have a universal story. ♦

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About The Author

Nathan Weinbender

Nathan Weinbender is the Inlander's Music & Film editor. He is also a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, where he has co-hosted the weekly film review show Movies 101 since 2011.