Move over, Tiger King. There’s a new Netflix documentary we’re all going to be obsessed with: Circus of Books. The documentary was made by Rachel Mason, daughter of Barry and Karen Mason. In the ‘80s, Barry and Karen took over a bookstore in West Hollywood, Calif. That information by itself isn’t too shocking. Except, it wasn’t just any bookstore. It was a bookstore filled with gay pornography.
Their daughter Rachel didn’t even know exactly what her parents did for a living until she was much older. In Circus of Books, she interviews the parents she’s known all her life about the profession they kept secret for decades. We wanted to know: Where are Barry and Karen Mason from Circus of Books now?
Barry and Karen Mason took over Circus of Books in 1982.
Back then, the store was called Book Circus. Barry and Karen renamed it when they took ownership of the shop. At first, Barry and Karen stuck mostly to selling racy magazines, but as VHS became a bigger deal, the Masons pivoted and started making a fortune selling pornographic films. They even produced hardcore movies themselves (although they claim never to have seen the films they helped make).
Business continued to boom throughout the ‘80s until Circus of Books was caught up in a federal effort to shut down adult video distributors. The shop was involved in a sting operation and Barry was charged with illegal transportation of obscene material across state lines. Luckily for the family, Barry’s lawyer mounted a First Amendment defense and the charges against him were ultimately dropped.
Barry and Karen Mason’s store Circus of Books is no longer open.
At one point, there were three Circus of Books locations — the original store in West Hollywood, one in Sherman Oaks, and a third in Silverlake. The Sherman Oaks location was forced to close at some point in the 1990s due to being located too close to an elementary school.
As the internet became more and more prevalent (and with it, plenty of free pornography), the shop began to struggle financially. The Silverlake location closed in 2016 — the original “Circus of Books” sign is still on the building, but it’s now a marijuana dispensary. Finally, the original Circus of Books in West Hollywood closed down in February of 2019.
Throughout their time as purveyors of the gay pornography scene, Barry and Karen had a unique glimpse into the HIV/AIDS crisis and the rise of LGBTQ+ activism. And yet, they refused to disclose the true nature of their work to anyone, including friends and family. Back when Rachel and her two brothers were younger, they were told never to share the name of their family’s bookstore with anyone.
Barry and Karen Mason are obviously no longer running the store, but they’re much more open to the idea of discussing it these days. You can hear the whole story straight from the Masons themselves in Circus of Books, which is available to stream on Netflix starting on Wednesday, April 22.