Director interview'They may as well have been selling apples'

‘Regular’ Jewish parents turn gay porn powerhouse in new Netflix documentary

‘Circus of Books’ follows how director Rachel Mason’s conservative parents turned an adult bookstore into a California LGBT institution — and still sent the kids to Hebrew school

  • Karen Mason, left, and Barry Mason in the documentary 'Circus of Books.' (Courtesy)
    Karen Mason, left, and Barry Mason in the documentary 'Circus of Books.' (Courtesy)
  • Barry Mason, left, and Rachel Mason in the documentary 'Circus of Books.' (Courtesy)
    Barry Mason, left, and Rachel Mason in the documentary 'Circus of Books.' (Courtesy)
  • Karen Mason in the documentary 'Circus of Books.' (Courtesy)
    Karen Mason in the documentary 'Circus of Books.' (Courtesy)
  • Interior of the Circus of Books adult bookstore, subject of the documentary of the same name. (Courtesy Rachel Mason)
    Interior of the Circus of Books adult bookstore, subject of the documentary of the same name. (Courtesy Rachel Mason)

NEW YORK — Rachel Mason had an incredibly normal childhood. She and her two brothers grew up in Los Angeles with a warm-hearted, eternally happy father and a somewhat stricter, religiously conservative mother.

They went to synagogue, they did their homework, and Rachel tended to run around with an early videocamera. Only as she entered high school and gravitated to the “counter-culture” and the “queer kids,” did she realize her parents were far from dull — they were revolutionaries.

Barry and Karen Mason owned and operated Circus of Books, a gay pornography store with locations in West Hollywood and Silver Lake. They also produced and distributed some of the most renowned gay pornographic films of the pre-Internet era.

You wouldn’t know it to look at them. Not then, not now. As one former employee (and current drag queen celeb) puts it “they may as well have been selling apples.” They treated it like a business, and not even one they sought out.

Barry Mason, left, and Rachel Mason in the documentary ‘Circus of Books.’ (Courtesy)

How they fell into owning a heralded store/hookup spot is just one of the reasons to check out “Circus of Books,” the heavily-buzzed-about documentary on Netflix. Directed by the Masons’ daughter Rachel — now an adult with one foot in traditional documentaries, the other in experimental art cinema — the film gets into the nitty gritty of how to run a smut shop, but also argues that Circus of Books should be recognized as a needed, even noble, space.

Additionally, the film gets quite personal when it details how, despite what line of work put the kids through college, Rachel’s brother clashed with his religiously devout mother when he divulged that he was gay.

The film is on Netflix thanks to super producer Ryan Murphy’s larger deal with the streaming giant. Murphy, whose other credits include “Hollywood,” “Feud,” “Glee” and “Nip/Tuck” is also in the early stages of turning Mason’s documentary into a narrative film. My telephone conversation with Mason has been edited for clarity.

Hi, thanks for taking the time to speak with me today.

Shalom! Are you in Israel?

No, Queens, New York, actually.

My mother reads The Times of Israel. She’s terrified about being written about in the Jewish press. We’ve been in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, but when the Forward wrote something she started panicking. “My grandparents used to read the Forward in Yiddish!” So, you know, now this is on the inside. The people she actually knows will read this.

Well, this speaks to the heart of the film, how your parents were able to put the “work” in the bubble and otherwise live a normal life. Had it not been for their job, there’d be no reason to make a movie about them.

Precisely. And I’ve had some feedback from people in the LGBT community, where they say, “Hey, what is a straight couple doing running a gay business? It would have been better if it was a gay couple!” And, sure, I suppose you can say that, but then you wouldn’t have a movie! You need a conflict to tell a story.

Karen Mason in the documentary ‘Circus of Books.’ (Courtesy)

So, your parents: you make it clear that your father is an extremely kind and agreeable man, but your mother is something of a tough cookie. And not the easiest person to direct. With this out in the world now, what’s her “review” on this movie?

Oh, God! My mom is a pile of contradictions. That’s what makes the movie great. She is a complicated, difficult, fascinating character. And she’s never easy; she doesn’t do easy. Saying something positive is quite a challenge for her. I don’t know how many good reviews she needs to read to prove that this was was worthwhile.

But she has recognized, finally, that this effort was a success. There’s been too much positive feedback. I explained to her what 100% on Rotten Tomatoes means. [Note: “Circus of Books” is now 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is still a major feat!]

Ultimately she wishes this movie was about anybody but herself. That’s her famous line. She says if she had known that it was ever going to go this wide, she never would have agreed to participate in it.

There are a lot of people who make documentaries about their parents; they don’t always get this much attention.

I was not expecting this to do so well. I expected, perhaps, it would be beloved in the gay community. I didn’t expect it would rise to this level of conversation in the Jewish community. I figured it would show in the LGBT film festival circuit and then go to the world of academia, for gender studies classes. This is all a shock to me.

But a good shock, a delight. It shows our culture is ready to handle this content. I don’t think it would have just 10 years ago, or even less.

Karen Mason, left, and Barry Mason in the documentary ‘Circus of Books.’ (Courtesy)

There definitely is a generational divide concerning the “liminal space” of a gay bookstore. You may have people who are older and identify as liberal, who support gay rights, but hold on to an attitude that considers sex work and pornography as exploitive. Some old school liberals, like my parents, raised their kids with the notion that a strip club is immoral and exploits women; some Generation Z theorists say anyone who isn’t making coin masturbating on MyCams dot com or whatever is on the wrong side of history.

Let me ask, do you identify as heterosexual?

By no choice of my own, yes, I am straight. It’s quite dull.

Okay, so you have outed yourself as heterosexual. But this is important, because you were brought up recognizing an imbalance between how men and women are treated. And there is truth there.

But gay sex work and pornography is very different. Categorically different. You, being straight, are part of the mainstream. There were and are so many more opportunities to find all kinds of content. This film, even beginning in the cultural shift of the late 1960s and early 1970s, it is still so transgressive to hint at anything being gay. I am 41, and as a kid the words “gay” or “faggot” were synonyms for awful, terrible, disgusting. If you were gay you were sick and despicable, and for many years you could be jailed for it.

The sex business is so heavily scrutinized, so there is tremendous self-policing

To have an environment where people were making content of men with men, where you could go and look at it. When we shot the closing of the shop I had men in tears — actually crying — a Vietnam veteran came to pay his respects, because when he came out of the army this was the only place where he could come. To even know such a place was in existence meant so much for him.

So that’s one thing. The other, about pornography in general, things have definitely changed. Women are much more empowered. Sure, there are a few cases of exploitation, as in any business, but the sex business is so heavily scrutinized, so there is tremendous self-policing. It is not a criminal business. It’s legal and above-ground, and they hate bad behavior.

It’s interesting to think about that, considering so much of the content is sold as “outlaw” and “taboo.”

We have such a perverse fixation on shaming sex in our cultural or even biblical traditions. But if we didn’t shame sex to the degree we do, I don’t think we’d have the kind of porn that we have, which dives right into these fetishes that people want to see because it is repressed. The more you try to shove something down, the more it will come out in different ways.

You may see something that plays at “incest porn” or whatever, but it’s actually fantasy. These women are over 18. Yes, there are some bad actors who poison the supply chain. This is the minority. As long as porn is fantasy, and consensual, which it is, there’s nothing wrong with it. And these people get paid for it; it’s a job. It might not be the job you want to do, but it’s a job.

Your parents are not at all transgressive people. Do you think the fact that this was gay porn helped rationalize it for them, that it was so outside their personal life and their own desires? Would they have been more queasy distributing straight porn, which would have been a little closer to home?

Well, my dad loved the store. He never had a problem with it. There’d be no movie if it was just my dad. My mother, though, did consider it all smut. Even today she is squeamish about the word “porn.” It’s beneath her. She always had aspirations of a higher status. Everyone in her family went to college and made something of themselves. And being devout, Conservative on the edge of Orthodox, made her very conflicted. My father was more working class. His parents never put pressure on him to be more religious, they just wanted him to marry a Jewish girl.

Interior of the Circus of Books adult bookstore, subject of the documentary of the same name. (Courtesy Rachel Mason)

Your film shows how your mother’s more dogmatic religious attitude caused a family rift when your brother came out as gay. But I am curious if there are aspects of Judaism that were a bright spot for you? I did see a shot in the movie of young Rachel spinning a dreidel.

Yes! I’m glad you saw that. I mean — I love the Reform movement. It has opened up so much to me, and for anyone who maybe doesn’t necessarily plan on marrying a Jew, but may marry someone who will appreciate Judaism. To absorb the cultural traditions, and even some of the biblical traditions.

I mean, we live in America. It’s actually pretty hard to find another Jew. Unless you want to live in a shtetl like Williamsburg, you need to really make an effort. The reality of American life is being surrounded by non-Jews. That’s okay. I have a seven-year-old child. He goes to a Reform synagogue. I’d say half of the people there have mixed parentage, but those kids are learning the traditions. The dogma of “you must marry a Jew or you are out” is not realistic.

Then, of course, there’s the actual teachings of more conservative Judaism. A line that says, “Thank you God for not making me a woman,” well, that doesn’t make the women who want to pray feel very good! How about my mother, when she wanted to grieve for her father, had problems finding a minyan [prayer quorum], so she had to pull in the janitor because my mother didn’t count as a person?!

These built-in divisions, in which women do not matter, were able to change. And I love that change. So I feel very connected. I am involved with a group called Never Again Action where younger Jews are helping refugees, something we needed in World War II. I very much believe in tikkun olam [repairing the world].

Who do you want to play your parents when the narrative version of this movie is made?

Well, I am in good hands with producer Ryan Murphy, and I was in a room when they were throwing names around. I did hear them say the name Meryl Streep a few times. I mean, wow, yeah, she’d do a good job!

What about your dad?

Everyone says he looks like Larry David. But this would have to be younger. Maybe Brett Gelman, who is also on “Stranger Things.” And I actually met him, once, at the premiere of the movie “Jojo Rabbit” and the lightbulb went off. So let’s see!

Who should play the little version of you?

I can’t even imagine it. But I remember the movie “Welcome to the Doll House,” so, that girl [Heather Matarazzo] is probably my age now, but there’s gotta be someone young with that rebellious feel.

Maybe one of the kids from “Stranger Things”? Maybe Ethan Hawke’s daughter, Maya Hawke?

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