EDITOR’S NOTE: The following essay was published in 2011 in Art21 by Rachel Mason, an accomplished artist who is the daughter of Karen and Barry Mason, owners of West Hollywood’s Circus of Books. It is being republished with Mason’s permission. Mason currently is working on a documentary about Circus of Books, an iconic WeHo location for the gay community that her parents said last spring they would be closing. In the essay below she talks about how, as a child, she dealt with the fact that her parents operated gay porn video and bookstores in WeHo and Silver Lake, dealing with the L.A. Mafia, street graffiti artists and employees dying of AIDS. The Silver Lake location closed last year and the WeHo location will soon be on the market. More information about the documentary can be found online here and here.
I always wonder what to say when people ask me about the Circus of Books. My brothers and I enjoy sending each other Yelp reviews of my parents’ business. Like this one, for the store in West Hollywood:
“Okay, i will totally agree with Cee on the dirtaaay factor here, but I still have to give it 4 strong stars for the fact that this was the ONLY PLACE IN LA that carried Runaway Midget! It’s true, who knew such a title was SOOOO popular. I mean, I knew it kicked the ass, but wow, talk about hard to find!
“I looked everywhere for this thing; Hustler, Pleasure Chest, Le Sex Shoppe, NADA! But yes, oh yes, after almost giving up I thought I would try this stank ass store and low and (I do mean low) and behold, tah dah, there it was.
“So thank you Circus of Books. You made my twisted friend oh so very happy on his birthday!! Woot :)”
The first in a long scroll of reviews (5 stars) came from none other than my dad:
“This store has been around since 1960. It has a wonderful selection of magazines, adult DVDs, toys, pipes, books, lubes & condoms and much more. It’s clean and well lit. Very pleasant to shop there.”
My parents own two stores in L.A. called Circus of Books, one is in West Hollywood, the second, in Silver Lake. They are similar in what they carry. Both stores have an Over 18 Section. The adult section in one store is separated by a beaded curtain and saloon doors at the other. When we were kids, my brothers and I enjoyed sneaking under the saloon doors in the West Hollywood store and running into the section with all the naked people. I always thought that every store had an Over 18 section.
The store in West Hollywood is where it all began.
My brothers and I were told never to mention the name of the store to anyone at school. Whenever teachers asked what my parents did, we told them “they own a bookstore.” “Which one?” “I don’t know….” Eventually, when we were too old to get away with being that ignorant, we were told to say “my parents are in real estate.” Or (my mother’s favorite): “my parents are CEOs.” The truth is that my parents own one of the oldest gay porn video distribution companies in the country, and a legendary bookstore that thrived during the heyday of gay 80’s and 90’s nightlife in West Hollywood. I’ve been told that their store was the epicenter of West Hollywood before West Hollywood was officially the boystown of L.A. The store’s parking lot was even called “Vaseline Alley;” eventually, my parents had to close the store during the hours of 2-4 a.m. because of all the “incidents.”
My parents are unlikely owners because they got into this business only accidentally. When I told my mother I was going to write about it, she just said, “We inherited a business. We are not the visionaries. We are stewards of what the original owners created and we maintain it.” And indeed, the vision for the store was not theirs. They cannot take any credit for the branding of an adult magazine and novelty store as a “Circus of BOOKS.” My mom said that, if I wanted to know how it actually started, the original owners are probably dead, but the woman who owns Trashy Lingerie might be the one person alive who would still remember. (Trashy Lingerie is itself one of the few remaining landmarks of 1970’s-era L.A. sleaze).
The store landed in my parents’ laps through a series of encounters which involved money, drugs and death. When Larry Flynt decided to move his operations to Los Angeles, he took an ad out in the Los Angeles Times seeking people willing to personally deliver Hustler magazine. It was the perfect job for my parents at that time. They rented a van, took it around to all the magazine stands in L.A., and a place called Book Circus was one of the stores on their route [click here to see a picture of the original Book Circus, ca. 1982].
One day the owners of the store didn’t pay a bill, or so the story goes, and my parents let them off the hook. But then it happened again, and again, and when they finally tried to figure out what was happening, they found out that employees were quitting, the owners were apparently snorting the business up their noses, and a few more inquiries by my dad led to a conversation with the landlord. My parents agreed to pay the rent in exchange for the failing business — except, the business wasn’t really failing. The L.A. mafia, who apparently were alive and well in the late 1970’s in L.A. and in control of the adult magazine industry (it was just magazines back then because VHS hadn’t hit yet) was not happy about the fact that this young couple was taking over such an important business. The place was even fire-bombed several times in an attempt to scare or otherwise deter them from entering this line of work. But, a few death threats later, the store was theirs. It’s been the Circus of Books ever since.
After my parents realized they could manage a store, they replicated the business in Silverlake. The second store has a big mural on the side of it. When they first started the business back in the 80’s, gangs constantly sprayed over each others’ tags on the store’s exterior walls. One day my dad approached one of the taggers and asked what he could do to make them stop. They said if he let an artist make a mural and sign his name to it, no one would ever graffiti up the building anymore. So my dad paid him to spray a mural which stayed on the building for nearly 20 years. It was covered over about 8 years ago with a new one, but I found someone had put a picture of it up online a while back. The image below shows what it looked like.
I once came across a book about the history of gay pornography called “One-Handed-Histories: Eroto-politics of Gay Male Video Porn.” I asked my parents what they knew about it, and went through different people mentioned in the book to see if their names were familiar. Not only did my parents know every name I read–porn stars, producers, distributors, company owners–but they knew exactly how each person died, even when the book didn’t mention that the person was dead. I realized my parents had an inside view of this world, and that they had participated in an era which is now gone. And again, this reminded me of my childhood.
When I look back, I remember we were always meeting handsome men who would suddenly disappear. And if I asked my mom about any of them she said that they had died of AIDS. I just assumed that anyone who worked in that store ended up dead.
My mom hired a lot of people with AIDS because, at that time, the federal government wasn’t considering AIDS to be a disease covered by Medicaid. If anyone needed assistance, they had to claim they were unemployed. My mom was willing to pay her employees in cash because a few of them told her that they really wanted to keep their jobs and they needed treatment, so she kept them on and paid them in cash even if it was illegal. She just didn’t think it was right that they should also lose their jobs. I realized later from asking my parents (nothing comes out unless I ask them, usually about three or four times) that my parents sometimes went to visit their employees at the hospices when their families didn’t want to come see them.
Even now, when I ask my mom anything about the Circus she responds, “that’s not interesting to anyone.” She says, “it’s just a business.” And that part is true. All small business owners end up with expertise in the field of whatever products they are involved in. But it is funny, the lengths my parents will go to feign ignorance about what they sell–like poppers, a mainstay in any porn store. I remember once having a conversation where I asked them why they had to order huge cases of video head cleaner when no one even uses VHS tapes anymore; of course, their response was, “our customers just happen to have very clean video players.”
About five years ago, my friend John Knuth moved to Los Angeles from Chicago. We were friends for awhile before he even knew about my parents’ store, and in his fresh-to-L.A. vision, he saw it as a great place to stage art shows. I went back to New York and John finally convinced my mom that he could make some great things happen if they let him. For about a year, John curated and had friends curate exhibits with opening performances which were incredibly fun and where you had to hunt for the art in the store. It was kind of the “Where’s Waldo” of art in a porn store.
The art shows were a bit of a revelation to my parents (or if you couldn’t tell who really runs the business by now, to my mom). Those shows brought a whole different group of “kids” to the store (as my mom put it), and who knows, maybe some different kinds of things could sell (or so she hoped). After about the 10th such show, I was back in L.A. and stopped in with John to see the warehouse where my parents’ office was located; it also houses all of the videos they distribute. John took one look at the space and immediately proposed that he could make it into a gallery. Amazingly, he convinced my Mom again, and on my next trip to L.A. I was in for one of the biggest shocks of my life: the Circus Gallery.
I grew up in that warehouse, my brothers and I running around all the stacks of adult material we weren’t allowed to look at. Now, suddenly, the space was filled with art! And it was really good work. Circus Gallery existed from 2006-2008, and had a highly successful run, with artists that are still showing their work in Los Angeles and abroad. I had nothing to do with any of these shows and its entire success is due to John Knuth, who still tirelessly champions the artists he exhibited in the space (including me) [see here for additional images of Circus Gallery].
I was sad when the gallery closed, but my parents were never really meant to run a gallery. They would constantly ask John why he put so little inventory out. “Who’s going to buy something so expensive?” they’d ask. And “why don’t artists make a lot of things and sell them cheap, instead of the other way around?” I was very impressed with John’s ability to withstand the nagging. My parents were very happy to get out of the “gallery business,” as mom put it, once the economy tanked.
Today, the stores are still there, but competition from the Internet has never allowed the adult section to thrive like it once did in the good ol’ days of the ’80s and ’90s. The stores have shifted their emphasis to vintage publications, and my mom now spends a lot of time searching for old Hustlers and Playboys–when I click on the store’s website I see vintage Bound and Gagged” and Drummer magazines wrapped in plastic and sold as collector’s items.
Cover of “Meatmen: An Anthology of Gay Male Comics,” edited by Winston Leyland.
And sure enough, people buy them. The store also sells T-shirts. The last time I was in L.A., I spent quality time with my mom going to thrift stores to rummage through the T-shirt racks in search of ones she thought would sell at the stores–shirts with silly writing seem to be selling right now. Even a recent Yelp reviewer seemed to be astonished by this fact:
I bought something here @CircusOfBooks
Was it paraphernalia?
Was it a weekly news magazine?
Was it porn?
Was it a used book or vintage vinyl recordings?
It was a T-shirt.