There was a small, gay-owned business called A Pleasant Present located in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. I would always stop in at this gift shop as a young teenager and chat with the owner, but then I noticed there was a curtained area towards the back. Men would occasionally pop out of there and hurry out or immediately go to the counter and make a discreet purchase. I would one day sneak back there and see that this small store sold gay porn videos and magazines. It was the first time that I saw such material in a public space, and it remains the first safe space that I remember as a young gay kid.
On a much larger scale, Circus of Books operated two separate locations (in West Hollywood and Silver Lake, respectively) by Karen and Barry Mason from 1982 up until they closed in 2016 and 2019. While she was growing up, Rachel Mason knew her parents ran their own business, but she wasn’t exactly keen on the notion that her parents were running one of the most celebrated gay porn shops in the United States.
Her film, titled after the store’s namesake, is both personal and ambitious. She interviews not only her own family members and drag superstar (and former Circus of Books employee) Alaska, but Larry Flynt sits down for a chat where he respectfully talks about Karen and Barry Mason. While they operated their store, the Masons witnessed more than 30 years of LGBT history. They saw an entire generation of gay men wiped out from the AIDS pandemic, but they also served as a haven for men, young and old, to discover more about themselves.
Awards Daily: What did your family say when you told them that you wanted to make a documentary about their store?
Rachel Mason: I’ve done a million things over the years as an artist where they said, ‘Okay…’ In a way, it started off as one of those things, too. Maybe they thought it was one of those esoteric projects that some people will see. And then it became bigger when I brought in more film crews, and I think it gave them more of a sense that it would be bigger. I think they got a little panicked when they realized the story was going to be shared in a wide way. My brothers have been so amused by it by now and they think it’s worth sharing. My dad is the most simple guy who is happy-go-lucky, but my mom, of course, is not that way at all. She was the one force of opposition from the beginning. Telling me from the beginning that it wasn’t a good idea. Imagine that times a thousand because I dealt with that on screen and off screen. It’s been a fun reversal to say, ‘Hey, Mom, it does look like it was a good idea for me to do this.’
AD: Yeah, she has those lines throughout the film where she says, ‘I don’t know why you’re filming this’ and, by the end, I thought it was kind of…endearing in a way?
RM: Oh, wow. I’m glad you can see that (laughs).
AD: How long did you film for?
RM: All told, it was about four years on the film.
RM: The first year was filmed when the store was closing and then I had to put footage together into something to raise more financing for [it]. I had to make a trailer and I had to start editing. I had to redo a bunch of interviews once I realized what the structure of the film was going to be. I then had to go film the other store closing—the West Hollywood store. That wasn’t included in the film—you just see the Silver Lake store closing—but there is a lot of work you do as a documentary filmmaker where you piece things together. You really have to film everything and then piece it together.
AD: Was it easier to make this film because it was your family or was that something that you felt like you needed to look beyond in order to create an objective piece?
RM: I think it’s a little of both. When it’s someone you know, you show up on a professional level and you’re treated that way. And then when it’s someone you know as intimately as your own mother, they can yell at you in front of your crew. You can lose authority and lose control on the technical side. Imagine when your boss is getting taken down by your own mother and how do you keep shooting when it’s the story? That’s what added to the humor in a lot of way. In a bunch of interviews, I was in the other room and I had a producer do the questions.
AD: Oh, I didn’t know that.
RM: And sometimes I’d deliberately set myself away from my mom when she was walking through the store. I knew that if I was right there, she wouldn’t have been as forthcoming. I could see she was more of a show woman. She’d be like, ‘Let me show you Handjobs Magazine.’ With me there, she’d just want to get through it. She’d be talking to the camera, and I would be a few shelves away.
AD: What was it like interviewing Larry Flynt?
RM: Oh my god, that was an amazing interview.
AD: That blew my mind when he came on screen.
RM: The fact that he agreed very easily to the interview was amazing. He doesn’t just do interviews like this really. I think I took it for granted until I realized after the fact that there were many people who were unable to meet with him. He had so much respect and admiration for my parents; it was a total shock to me. I knew that they knew him. Who doesn’t know him? But he knew them! He could say on camera, ‘Your mom and dad were the first people to distribute Hustler.’ They downplay everything. If it was them telling the story, there would be no story. It wouldn’t be detailed out and my mom would make it sound like it was no big deal. The fact that people like him were giving me the straight-out-of-the-lion’s-mouth truth that they were there when nobody else was distributing Hustler. He, to this day, remembers how well they did and how hard they worked for him. I had no idea. I thought they were one of a thousand different distributors. But there were only a few. There weren’t that many. The people who took the job seriously and did well. . . Larry Flynt basically started his operation. He remembers those people and is grateful for them.
AD: When he says, ‘your parents’…I had to rewind it, because that has to be so surreal for someone who is so iconic.
RM: It really was. When I first started the film, I had a different producer, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be integral to the story with how I was telling it. We were correcting people who were saying, ‘your parents’ and asking them to say ‘could you just say Karen and Barry Mason?’ We thought we would need them to say it that way. By the time Larry Flynt is on camera and he’s saying that, I knew that was the story. We weren’t going to correct Larry Flynt. He was saying, ‘your parents,’ I have to be behind the camera and that led me to change the structure of some of the other interviews. I was being shot in reverse so you could see I was part of the story, and I didn’t set out to make myself part of it at all. I was trying to avoid that.
AD: One of the segments of the doc that you are actually very present for is when you interview your brother, Josh. We get to see you just talking to him. Were you aware of anything that he was telling you or were some of those exchanges just reminders?
RM: That’s the thing that makes the film as real as it is. I had a previous interview where I wasn’t doing the questioning, and I wasn’t there. I realized that I had to be on camera and hearing it. They were wanting to tell it to me. I asked Josh a bunch of the questions that had been asked previously. He revealed things that I had never heard before. I didn’t know the extent. I was 38 when I was interviewing him, and I flashbacked to my teenage self when I was a total artist weirdo experiencing every aspect of the LGBT acronym thinking that I was at the center of gay culture. Here my little brother was totally closeted and struggling with coming out and feeling shame and guilt. When he told me he bought a one-way ticket, I started crying partially because I felt a sense of a shame that I wasn’t there for him. And he told me, ‘Well, Rachel, your world is too gay.’
RM: I think that actually expresses a big piece of what we look at even now in our culture. We have LGBTQIA+ and the freak flag, and then there are some people that are just gay men. They don’t want to be involved with everything. Josh just had an attraction to men, and that alone is his cross to bear. There was no space for that. It’s so ironic that my parents were selling the material that he would want to look at. His burden was shield himself from the temptation of that store, and our society, in the ’90s, was completely homophobic and full of images of men dying of AIDS. I had no idea of his struggle, and I was selfishly caught up in my world of wanting to be an artist. All of my friends were pretty much queer, and I didn’t identify Josh in that group because my friends were punk and weirdos.
AD: When he says he had to busy himself with school to distract himself from thinking about being gay, I really connected with that. I came out in the early 2000s, so I understand all the residual fears from the fallout of the AIDS crisis.
RM: I was reading an article about Pete Buttigieg and he talks about gay perfectionism. It’s really a thing, and I see it more with gay men. The world comes down a lot harder on gay men than it does on gay women. I’m just going to say that, and I don’t care if people get mad at me for saying that. The Bible doesn’t say shit about women. It says, ‘Thou shalt not lie with another man,’ so if you’re coming from a Biblical worldview, as a lot of us do, the Bible denounces gay male sexuality in a very specific way. This movie is about male sexuality. It’s not really LGBTQIA; it’s really the culture of gay men. I think Josh’s piece in that puzzle, amazingly, reflects that reality. You see it going back directly to when those men were getting hauled off into jail in the 1950s. It was just so hard to do that. That’s why there’s this idea of knowing you have these impulses and knowing it goes against everything in our society—I better be extra perfect and keep myself extra busy. I look perfect. I go into the military. I am valedictorian. I talk perfect. If I am gay, at least they can’t say I’m not perfect. I think Josh reflects that. To some extent, I don’t think I felt that shame. I’ve always been bisexual. I don’t think I even bothered coming out, because I don’t care. I am not burdened by it. It’s because being female, you’re not pressured in that way.
RM: And AIDS didn’t wipe out women—it wiped out men.
AD: Yeah. The denouncing or demonizing of gay men was brought up a lot when Pete was still in the race. I would go out to a bar and strangers would talk about the primary election and everyone had a different reason for not liking him. He’s too gay, he’s not gay enough, he’s too traditional, etc.
RM: I think gay men are judged in a very specific way. Being an out gay man is a radical thing. My film celebrates the powerful work these men did simply by being gay. By partying. By going out. The fact that so many people died…I find those men very heroic for just being who they are. I wasn’t old enough to be a part of ACT UP, so in a way, my film is an homage to a generation of people that I feel a huge debt to. I feel that huge debt. I have to say that when I see younger people say, ‘OK boomer’ and stuff like that, I am so disturbed by it. You don’t actually understand that those people were way more radical than you’ll ever be in this perfect Twitterverse you’ve created for yourself. Or Instagram. I don’t know if you know that my partner is Buck Angel?
AD: Oh yeah!
RM: It blows my mind that people on Instagram will ever say a bad word about his experience. This culture of people taking down elders is out of control.
AD: It’s gross.
RM: Yeah, it is! Do you remember a time when there was nowhere you could get a surgery? You had to do it on your own. You have to look at the older generation and the struggle they had.
AD: I appreciate how much you infuse history in the film because I do feel, on a certain level, that people need to be reminded of the gay struggle.
RM: They do.
AD: Something like Pose and its second season focusing on the prevalence of HIV and AIDS in the gay community is so important. We need to remember that.
RM: Yeah! That’s why I will say that when I met Ryan Murphy and he said he wanted to be an executive producer on this film that the store meant a lot to him. He came to LA in the ’80s and there was no place but that store. People don’t know that there was a time before you could buy materials like this. So many men of that generation—and I do have to say men and not lesbians or bisexual people—would say, ‘the store was there when there was nothing else…there’s no image in my head that I could see in the world.’ The store also provided lesbian publications or the very first trans publications. The group of people that really recognize the store’s value is the generation that Ryan is a part of. That’s why people became so passionate about it.
AD: What was it like being at the Silver Lake store on the last day?
RM: In a way, it was a heartbreaking day. There’s two distinct cultures in LA: the East Side and West Side. The West Hollywood store is not “West Side,” but it’s more of a center of Hollywood. East LA feels more the little sibling to the big, dominant West Side that takes over the city. When the Silver Lake store closed, so many people thanked my parents and were glad they could come on that day. It felt like a local community. The store really stuck its neck out for this part of Silver Lake that is fast disappearing. Silver Lake was more like that store: rough around the edges and kind of gnarly and it was a bit of an underground culture. When the West Hollywood store closed, that felt more profound to me on a different level.
AD: In what way?
RM: It felt like history was going away. The store had people that came from all over California—people that came even from outside of LA simply to say goodbye to that store. I remember a Vietnam vet who had tears streaming down his cheeks. You couldn’t not cry at the words he was saying. He told us that after he came back from the war, someone told him to come to the store, and he had the best moments of his life at this store. It was like he was paying respects to a dead person, you know? It felt that way. You could see he really made a journey to get there. People were like that all day long, and it was an older generation to say goodbye to the West Hollywood store. Also, I will mention that there are more people of color on the East Side and more white on the West Side. On the closing day of the West Hollywood store, it was the entire melting pot of LA. It’s culturally diverse as I’ve ever seen anywhere. It was just all backgrounds. The only thing they had in common was that they were all gay. And they all cared so much about this store and what this store meant to them.
Circus of Books debuts on Netflix on April 22.