By all appearances, Barry and Karen Mason were a conventional middle-class Jewish couple defined by their normality and inconspicuousness.
Yet the Masons were different, perhaps even subversive.
For 30 years, until the summer of 2012, they ran Circus of Books, a gay pornography bookshop in Los Angeles, and distributed hardcore gay movies.
The Masons are the subject of an absorbing documentary, Circus of Books, directed by their daughter, Rachel. Now available on the Netflix streaming network, this one-hour-and twenty six minute film ranges across a social landscape of homosexuality, gay rights and puritanical conformity in America.
As the film suggests, the Masons resolutely kept their three children — Rachel, Josh and Micah — out of the business. “We didn’t want them to know what we did,” Karen says.
Their kids were instructed to tell friends their parents operated a book store, period. And they were not allowed to set foot their two shops unless they lowered their gaze, lest they be corrupted by the lascivious magazines on display
For gay men, however, Circus of Books was a safe haven in a generally hostile environment.
Improbably enough, Karen launched her career as a newspaper reporter. She worked for The Wall Street Journal and The Cincinnati Inquirer and specialized in criminal justice stories. Barry, having studied cinema at the University of California in Los Angeles, was employed in the movie industry and was involved in the production of the television series Star Trek.
The pair met at a Jewish singles party in the greater Los Angeles area and got married within seven months. Barry, a technical whiz, segued into designing dialysis equipment, but couldn’t earn a decent living in that field.
He and Karen turned their talents to distributing risqué magazines published by Larry Flynt. They purchased Book Circus, a porn shop, when its owner fell behind his rent. From day one, the Masons prospered, prompting them to open a second store, which became the source of most of their revenue
They thought their sojourn in the porn business would be temporary. But events pushed them into becoming gay porn movie distributors. They could hardly keep up with the demand. They were liked and respected by their peers and employees because they were upfront and honest, recalls former porn star Jeff Stryker.
Like everyone else in the industry, they risked imprisonment. Due to an employee’s carelessness, Barry was charged with the criminal offence of shipping obscene material across state lines. Barry’s lawyer worked out a deal with the FBI that kept him out of jail.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Circus of Books is Karen’s ambivalent attitude to pornography. Raised in a conservative and religious household which abhorred homosexuality, she had no problem distributing gay porn and employing homosexuals. But when one of her sons announced he was gay, she was shocked and appalled. Eventually, she came to terms with his homosexuality.
Their enterprise was ruined by the internet. “It robbed me of my livelihood,” says Barry.
“We were an aging and ailing business,” Karen says early in the film. Later on, she adds, “Business slowed down. It was no longer viable.”
But as they both agree, they had a pretty good run while it lasted.