For a few months after I graduated from university, I was an intern at an art gallery in West Hollywood. On my lunch breaks, I’d follow the hot pavement along Santa Monica Boulevard past a marijuana dispensary, a vintage clothing shop and a funeral parlour to a big, salmon-pink building with terracotta moulding. The windows were papered over – an unusual sight in a city that loves flashy displays. This was Circus of Books, the last gay bookstore in Los Angeles.
When it closed in February 2019, few were surprised, though many mourned its passing. Circus of Books was long a dying breed on two fronts: a bookstore in the age of e-commerce and an adult video store in the era of Pornhub. As the neighbourhood around it slowly gentrified, Circus of Books became strangely more anonymous amidst yoga studios and health food shops. Down the strip, thumping new gay bars and underwear models on billboards seemed to signal changing tastes. The shop’s merchandise grew more eclectic as its business became more irregular: through saloon doors were rows of explicit DVDs and VHS tapes, as well as a case of sex toys and poppers, while up front were plastic bongs and beefcake birthday cards. Videos were a luxury I couldn’t afford on my hourly minimum wage but, each time I visited, I tried to buy something small – a vial of lube or a yellowing magazine – just to show the staff that I was grateful they had hung on. A couple of times, my finds were precious: a battered paperback of Edmund White’s States of Desire: Travels in Gay America (1991) and the April 1978 issue of Christopher Street, featuring Fran Lebowitz’s ‘Notes on Trick’.
Circus of Books, a documentary by Rachel Mason that examines the shop’s history and legacy, premiered on Netflix on 22 April. The film is really a portrait of her parents, Karen and Barry Mason, who led double lives for 30 years as the shop’s owners and conservative Jewish congregants, rarely mentioning the family business. They bought Circus of Books in 1982 from its previous owner, who had stopped paying his bills after developing what Barry says was a serious cocaine habit. At the time, the couple were working as local distributors for porn king Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler and leading gay titles like Blueboy and Honcho, after Barry had lost his job as an inventor of dialysis equipment and Karen decided to retire from journalism. Adult entertainment was a dangerous business then, but the two had a knack for it: ‘They were honest, trustworthy people, and that’s rare in this industry,’ says the former gay porn star Jeff Stryker. In the late 1980s, the Masons became national distributors of Stryker’s films and narrowly avoided jail time for an obscenity charge brought by Ronald Reagan’s Attorney General, Edwin Meese.
‘Growing up, I always assumed every store had an over-18 section,’ Mason wrote in the press release for ‘Circus of Books’, an exhibition at New York’s Fierman Gallery that opened in March 2019, a few weeks after the shop’s two locations, in West Hollywood and Silverlake, closed for good. ‘It was only when I got older that I realized my parents were in the business of hardcore gay porn.’ Along Fierman’s whitewashed walls, black wire armatures – the kind from which dildos hung at Circus of Books – supported a dense display of works by queer artists, including Vaginal Davis, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and Wayne Koestenbaum. X-rated magazines with names like Dreamer and Iniquity sat in stacks on the floor, while bins held loose photographs and flyers for perusal. I never found Circus of Books particularly sexy, with its harsh fluorescent lighting, gun-metal grey shelves and stale smell but, pressed up against other bodies in Fierman’s diminutive space, I felt something much closer to the pleasure of browsing at the Circus than I ever have in an another art gallery.
On 1 May this year, Fierman reprised the exhibition online to coincide with the release of Mason’s documentary – and, I suppose, the coronavirus lockdown. (Porn has never been such an essential business.) The internet, though, will never substitute for the frisson of meeting someone in the corner of a bookstore or the excitement of looking through a bin of male physique photographs from the 1950s, as if spying on someone’s private life. Circus of Books represented an adult world that I knew was disappearing when I arrived there. Now, Amazon tells me what I want to buy and dating apps pre-filter the men nearby.
Since lockdown began, I’ve been finding it hard to do anything but read. I order new titles from independent bookstores in New York that I worry may not be around when the city reopens. There’s a kind of informal commerce that’s about more than just buying things; its qualities of physical discovery and spontaneity, often in the presence of strangers, are something online shopping can never replace. That’s what we lose when these businesses close. Porn shops add to this an element of illicit pleasure; browsing them can feel like an act of defiance. The cheap volumes I once bought at Circus of Books have become a reminder of an economy we’ll need to fight to preserve, and a social space that will take even more to save.
Main Image: ‘Circus of Books’, 2019, exhibition view, Fierman Gallery, New York. Courtesy: Fierman Gallery, New York