circus-posterRachel Mason’s moving documentary tells the story of the iconic bookstore and gay porn shop that served as the epicenter for LGBTQ life in Los Angeles for decades. Unbeknownst to many in the community it served, the store was cultivated and cared for by Mason’s parents, Karen and Barry, a straight conservative Jewish couple. Circus of Books is an intimate portrait of the Masons and their accidental journey to become one of the biggest distributors of hardcore gay porn in the United States, all the while downplaying the family business to their friends, synagogue, and even their own children. While they approached their store primarily as a way to support their family, Circus of Books also provided a much-needed non-judgmental gathering place for L.A.’s LGBTQ community. When the AIDS epidemic hit with a vengeance, Karen and Barry provided aid and comfort to countless people who were suffering, even as the men’s own families rejected them.

Rachel Mason

Rachel Mason

An accomplished artist in her own right, Rachel Mason’s portrait of this lost world (her parents finally retired last year and the bookstore closed for good) is a poignant and entertaining document of an institution that was vital to its community. Mason also wrote and performs the end credit song, “Give You Everything.” The film is now available for screening on Netflix. I so enjoyed talking to Rachel Mason from her shelter-in-place.

Danny Miller: Rachel, it’s great to talk with you, I so enjoyed this beautiful film!

Rachel Mason: Thank you so much, I appreciate that!

I was happy to hear that you had already done the festival circuit with the film and that you got to screen it with appreciative audiences. I so feel for filmmakers who are having their films come out during this miserable pandemic.

Yes, we should have a moment of silence for all the films that are not getting what I got, it’s so sad. We were going to have a theatrical release, but I’m thrilled that people can now see the film on Netflix. I loved our time at all of the festivals, but the gay festivals in particular were such a joy. There was such a communal spirit at those screenings, with everyone getting all the references and laughing and crying at all the right moments!

I imagine this would be such a fun film to see with a big crowd.

For sure. When I saw the film with gay audiences, that’s when felt like I had actually done something for my community. I really feel for all the filmmakers and audiences who aren’t getting that right now, I hope we can figure out new ways to get that community spirit.

The upside, I guess, if you can call it that, is that you’ve got a captive audience yearning for new content.

That’s true. And while I think the film is for everyone, I think one of the best things about it is that it’s bringing people together in the queer community to remind us all of this historical past that is slipping away so quickly — especially the younger generation. I think many young people don’t have a clue about what the older generation went through. I want them and future generations to know what happened and what the role of erotic content was for our community in those years before the Internet.

I had the chance to interview Scotty Bowers when Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood came out. He reminded me how few options there were before the Internet for gay people.  It seems like places like your parents’ store were such a vitally important resource for the community. I’m glad that stories like his and the one you’re telling here are recorded for posterity. 

I completely agree. There’s so much that is disappearing because the older generation is not around. The people who survived the AIDS epidemic are like cherished members of our community. We need to get all these stories down. I hope Circus of Books gives people a sense that they really need to look for these stories before they disappear.

Without this film, the story of your parents and their role in this community would never have been known. Needless to say, I totally fell in love with your parents. In so many ways they reminded me so much of my own Jewish parents. It’s fascinating when you talk in the film about how you and your brothers didn’t quite realize what they were doing and it was only your friends who finally clued you in.

It was really interesting because my parents were so not cool. I had lots of cool friend friends with really cool parents, but my parents were not those people. They were kind of boring. They were straight. My mom was super religious which annoyed the crap out of me and all I wanted to do was rebel against them. And then here come my rebel friends who I find out are going to my family’s store and saying how cool it is. It was such a shock to me. In the end, it was exciting to realize that I had this access to one of the coolest places in the city in terms of how all my friends in the gay underground saw it. I think I appreciated the store so much more from the time I was a teenager on, and it was kind of like God’s will that I made this film because nobody else could have gotten the access. I mean, my mom would certainly not have ever let anyone but me follow her around with a camera, that was the last thing she wanted.

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It’s kind of a miracle that the film happened at all considering your mother’s reluctance to be a part of it, and yet I think that tension is also part of why it’s such a compelling film. Would you say that you finally won your mother over in terms of her being happy about being part of the documentary?

Well, I did manage to trot her out at a few of the festival screenings and have her stand there while she got standing ovations. My mom is very much a reluctant hero. First off, she hoped no one would ever see this film and now that people are seeing it, she has had to reckon with the fact that she is looked on as a hero by lots of people and yet she doesn’t feel any sense of heroism because up until the day the store closed, she says she was just doing her job — filing paperwork, sending out invoices, making sure her staff got paid — all the things you do to run a small business and none of it was particularly glamorous or interesting. So, when you finally come up for air after 40 years and people start thanking you for doing this work, there’s a sort of shell shock. Plus, my mother has an innate talent to find fault in almost anything. After she got a five-minute standing ovation at Frameline, she was perplexed that it went on for so long. I was like, “Mom, the one thing you can’t criticize is a standing ovation, there is just nothing bad about that!” (Laughs.)

I’m glad she showed up for those events despite her discomfort. In terms of the heroic element, yes, they were providing this amazing service for an oppressed community without judgment, but as soon as the AIDS crisis hit, that’s when I would start calling your parents real heroes. What they did to help people in that world during that awful time was so touching.

It’s true. That was really important even if they didn’t see it as anything extraordinary. When we look at the history of the Holocaust, there are these people who are called Righteous Gentiles who helped the people who were being persecuted, like the ones who hid Anne Frank and so many others. Those people are often very reluctant to accept any acknowledgement because they simply did what they felt was right. Like, what would you do if your best friend’s daughter was going to get killed? I mean, you would probably think about hiding her in your attic, too, right? It’s a simple thing but it reminds us all that there’s something called humanity here. And the lack of humanity that the gay population saw during the AIDS crisis was just utterly shocking. We look back at that time now, and we’re like, “Wow, really?” Parents didn’t show up for their own dying children and yet they called themselves Christians.

Did you realize what was going on at that time and what your parents were doing to help these people?

I didn’t understand the depth of that pain. My perspective on it as a kid was that I would see these beautiful, funny, amazing gay men who worked at the store who were great people and hilarious. And then, my mom would say, “Oh, well, he’s not here anymore because he died.” This happened again and again but I had this child’s perspective on it that I almost didn’t think twice about until I got older and knew many people who lost so many of their friends. And then when I interviewed my parents for the film and heard these stories, I was just heartbroken. A mother would call my mom and want to know what her son was like. And my mother would think, “Fuck you, lady, he was dying and you refused to fly out here from Idaho  to see him when he needed you so badly.” No amount of anti-gay feelings should override parental love to that extent. I wish I could say those sentiments have disappeared today but we know they’re still out there. We’re all aware that there is a powerful Christian right in this country. I was just reading about that hospital in New York that was set up on in Central Park to help with the pandemic but before anyone could work there or be treated they had to sign something saying they agreed with the group’s anti-gay policies.

Horrible.

I do think that’s where heroism comes in. My mom never ran out onto a battlefield to rescue people while bullets were flying, but she helped people who were being treated so cruelly by their own families and our culture. Sometimes it’s the least likely people who decide to stand up and do something right.

I love that analogy to the Righteous Gentiles during the Holocaust. Have your parents ever been honored by any LGBTQ groups?

Oh, God, no. First of all, they weren’t known. My parents were very, very private people, especially my mother. And very behind the scenes. Also because their work was related to the sex industry —

With its own biases and prejudices, forget about the gay part.

Exactly. So they just had their heads down and hoped no one would ever ask them about what they do. My mom would always try to just get past that question very quickly if anyone asked. “We have a bookstore.” That’s why this film is so shocking to their system.

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I admit that when I was watching this film, a lot of my tears came from the scene with your brother when he talks about what it was like for him to come out. That was so moving already, but then seeing your reaction as he’s telling his story was even more so.

Those were very real tears for me. When I heard him talk about the day he came out, and how he had gotten a one-way plane ticket because he didn’t know if he’d be accepted by my parents, I was just so horrified, I never knew he had gone through any of that. I had such a different experience growing up. I love my parents, but I was kind of done with them putting any pressures on me. I was always a rebel, my friends were all gay or from the counterculture — I took a girl to prom and no one even said anything about it. And the truth is I was too caught up in my own selfish teenaged world to notice my little brother and his struggles. And then interviewing him at 37 and hearing him talk about 18-year-old Josh being that closeted and afraid, I just had these extreme feelings of shame. I realized I was out there waving my freak flag while poor little Josh was just trying so hard to be that perfect little kid. I think his is the more common story, most people are not artists and weirdos thumbing their nose at society like I was at a young age. I think that’s what gave me a free pass — I never even bothered to come out to them. Josh carried so much pressure to be the perfect child.

That scene is such a touchstone for the film. Do you think the level of secrecy around your parents’ business had repercussions on your family dynamic?

What’s interesting is that despite her work, my mom had all the classic Jewish family values, like wanting us to marry Jewish, have kids, go to college. My mom had all these hardcore expectations for us to get straight As, and nothing was ever good enough. And later I would think, “Why do we have to do all this?” Was it related to the fact that they ran a gay porn shop? She’s never really let go of those expectations to this day, it’s kind of maddening.

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I can relate to those Jewish family values that are often bathed in neuroses.

Yeah, like there’s always this element of fear and survival mixed in — like you could get killed at any moment. You might think that you are part of the culture here but just wait until they start attacking Jews, we’ll be the first to be shoved into the ovens. I think that was also part of their fear of being open about what they were doing with the store.

I love all the interviews in the film. It’s amazing to see people like Larry Flynt and gay porn star Jeff Stryker, but what moved me the most is hearing from the old employees. What amazing characters. It’s so great to get their oral histories down from this lost world.

Totally. My dad talks about how important the employees were to people in the community. Like people would know that Gerald was there from four to six so they would go in then. Gerald had his own customers, and then earlier in the day Ben had his own group of customers, it was almost like fan clubs grew around all the different people who worked there. They knew their customers so well and what kinds of things they liked so they would give them a customized experience, like a niche within the niche.

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Your mother gets a lot of attention because she’s such a compelling character, but I was so moved by your father as well.

My dad is a guy who just loves life and he’s thrilled at the attention he’s gotten because of the film, the opposite of my mom who is panic-stricken about it. They’re an interesting pair because he is the most happy-go-lucky person I’ve ever known.

I just wish we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic because I would love to see your parents at the screenings with big crowds.

Oh, on that front my mother couldn’t be happier about the pandemic and that she doesn’t have to do anything related to the film. Before the quarantine started, she joked about heading to Antarctica for a month after the film came out and living in an igloo!

Circus of Books is now available to watch on Netflix.

 

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