Saturday, April 25, 2020
Rachel Mason | Circus of Books
where the sun don’t shine
by Douglas Messerli
Rachel Mason Circus of Books / 2020
When we first moved to Los Angeles, Howard and I, independently, discovered the gay bookstore, Circus of Books, which we visited separately several times. Even married gay men still enjoy gay porn, just like the heterosexual men who subscribed to Playboy and Larry Flynt’s publications.
The store in West Hollywood which Howard and I visited (there was another store in Silverlake) had nearly every popular gay magazine, along with noted photography books by artists of gay men, as well as other interesting works on mostly spiritual issues in the large open and airy first room; and in another “back” room, for which you needed to provide an age identification, had hundreds of current gay porno tapes—in those days mostly on VHS—for sale.
One could also perceive that, in some cases, this also served as a kind of cruising spot, although I never knew, thank heaven, that there was also an attic retreat.
Of course, as we aged, and gay porn was available on the internet, we stopped visiting that store, and recently, both of its venues closed.
It was with some degree of startlement, accordingly, that the recent Netflix film, Circus of Books, revealed that these meccas for gay people and dens of sin for the more conservative of our city’s citizens were owned and actively run by a gentle, faithfully religious Jewish couple, Barry and Karen Mason.
Barry, the less religious of the two, is a friendly and mild-tempered man, who seems more likely to have been able to serve and tolerate his clientele. After all, he worked with Hollywood directors in his optical printing work he created for 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek, and had used his technological abilities to create a protection from air in the dialysis system to help his father during a kidney transplant.
Barry admits that as AIDS grew, he regularly visited hospitals were dying men had been left to die without any support from their families.
In his daughter Rachel’s documentary, he comes off as so genial that you simply, in a day before COVID-19, might wish to simply hug him for helping to create a place in which gay men might wish to congregate without embarrassment—although I do recall Howard’s admonishment to be careful when I visited the store, since there was an important art gallery across the street. Yet there was something comforting about the place. Here was a store devoted to an audience that many businesses, except gay bars, had long shunned. And as the AIDS epidemic spread, Circus of Books, appeared more and more like a kind of home one could return to without feeling shamed.
Yet, it was Karen, the more religious of the two, who truly ran the business, buying up perhaps the largest collection of gay porno, dildos, and other devices that any other store in the US. Why she did this, despite her intense family life and commitment to traditional Judaism remains a bit inexplicable in Rachel’s film. How could this slightly straight-laced mother order up tapes such as “Cum on Guys,” “Where the Shine Don’t Shine,” and “The Taste of Ass”? Howard bought these, not I.
But there are clues. After all, as film critic Matt Fagerholm reminds us:
Easily the most widely known of Rachel’s interview subjects is Larry Flynt, whose need for secondary distributors of his controversial Blueboy magazine caused him to place an ad in the Los Angeles Times, which was answered by Barry and Karen. Having been forced to sell the rights to Barry’s aforementioned invention due to the outrageous cost of insurance, they were looking for a quick way to earn money, and their remarkable business sense led them to take over West Hollywood’s Book Circus, flipping the title and turning the property—along with their second location in Silverlake—into an essential sanctuary for gay men. Without modern online communal spaces such as KillerAndASweetThang.com that liberate repressed souls by normalizing their sexuality, Circus of Books was one of the sole places where the stigma routinely attributed to homosexual orientations was obliterated.
Karen had also marched with Martin Luther King and worked as a journalist covering raids by the police of homosexual bars.
Yet, her children were told, when others asked what their parents did, to simply say they owned a bookstore. And when they were finally allowed to visit their parents at their place of employment, they were warned to keep their eyes facing to the floor.
When her son Josh flew home from college to tell his mother and father that he was gay, he admits that he had bought a round-trip ticket just in case he might immediately been sent “packing.”
It clearly was not easy for Karen to accept the facts, giving that her religious views were in deep conflict with her son’s recognition of his sexuality. Clearly, having witnessed directly the deaths of so many of her customers she was terrified about his survival. Unfortunately, the director does not completely explain why her mother was far more accepting of her own identity with the LGBTQ community.
Perhaps some things are simply too private.
Yet this is a brave movie, portraying a world which I was part of, but knew so little about. Sometimes the people you might least suspect to be the supporters of your lifestyle are the most stolid as they helped in the struggle.
Los Angeles, April 25, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (April 2020).