Originally opening under the name Book Circus in 1960, this West Hollywood bookstore specialized in hardcore gay pornography and adult paraphernalia. Book Circus had a prime location for its target clientele on the corner in front of Vaseline Alley, a known hotspot for gay men to hook up, meet for car dates, purchase drugs, and pick up prostitutes. Prior to acquiring Book Circus, future owners Karen and Barry Mason found work distributing pornography publications owned by adult magazine magnate Larry Flynt. When Flynt began acquiring and distributing failing gay pornography magazines, the Masons began distributing those to bookstores across L.A. alongside the straight publications. Book Circus quickly became a regular customer of the Masons, with Barry Mason quoted as remembering:
“Book Circus and Universal News on Las Palmas and Hollywood Boulevard each took 600 copies of the gay Blueboy magazine when it first came out. I would load my truck for these two stops. Guys would be waiting for us at the door...I wouldn’t even be done unloading them and they were already sold. Blueboy was the first mainstream gay magazine. The guys loved it.”
When the original owner of Book Circus was in line to be evicted for missing rent payments, Barry Mason contacted the building manager and struck a deal: if he agreed to pay half of the Book Circus rent until the original owner was evicted, the lease would be signed to him upon the change in ownership. The building manager agreed, and after changing the name to Circus of Books, Barry and Karen Mason became the owners of the most popular gay pornography bookstore in Los Angeles.
Though the Masons insist that Circus of Books was not solely an adult bookstore, their continued distribution of pornography expanded their stock to include videos, as well as led to the opening of a second location in Silverlake. The success of Circus of Books was so well-known that the store was eventually targeted by then-President Ronald Regan's crackdown on the pornography industry. After the release of the Meese Report (a 2,000 page investigation into the porn industry penned by the Attorney General, Edwin Meese), law enforcement focused efforts on intercepting deliveries from adult distributors and persecuting them on charges of transporting obscene material. The Masons were one of these distributors indicted on such charges after an employee uknowingly shipped an order of several gay and straight pornographic VHS tapes to an FBI agent masquerading as a video store owner.
After a two year long legal battle, Barry Mason agreed to a pre-trial diversion program and to pay a $20,000 fine, and the charges against him and his wife were dropped. Circus of Books remained open and the numerous gay men Karen and Barry employed were able to benefit from the Masons' support throughout the AIDS crisis. Despite laws stating those infected would lose health insurance benefits if caught working, when employees suffering from AIDS felt well enough to work, Karen and Barry encouraged them to come into the store and work to both regain a sense of normalcy and continue making a wage. "I let them come to work and paid them cash, which was illegal, but there was no reason that they should lose who they were. I have always felt that work is important," Karen said.
The West Hollywood Circus of Books and its sister location became beacons of community for the gay men of Los Angeles. When the inception of the Internet made gay porn more widely available and dating/hookup apps rose in popularity, sales declined at Circus of Books as the store and its adjacent Vaseline Alley were no longer needed as the sole available cruising grounds. Employees and regular customers expressed sadness at seeing the familiar meeting grounds grow emptier — Rachel Mason, daughter of Karen and Barry and director of the documentary Circus of Books, recalls that when the Silverlake location closed in 2016, "...it was unbelievable, the kind of reaction. People walked in and just burst into tears. I mean, people walked in through the front door, and we're just crying." The West Hollywood location closed in February of 2019, and was taken over in 2020 and reimagined as an adult high end boutique and gallery showcasing racy work from LGBTQ artists.
On April 22nd, 2020, Rachel Mason's Circus of Books premiered on Netflix. The documentary offers an in-depth look at both the history of the Circus of Books store, her parents' involvement with the gay community juxtaposed against their conservative Jewish lifestyle, and the legacy of Circus of Books as a landmark of the Los Angeles gay community.