Photography By Howard T. Fang
“We sell these popper things,” says 70-year-old Karen Mason, who gestures toward a Ziploc bag of assorted amber-colored vials atop her paper-strewn desk in a basement office on Sunset Boulevard. Outside the office door, thousands of DVDs with titles like A Rim With a View, Black Gang Bang, and Hole Whores of the Holy Empire collect dust inside boxes that are piled to the ceiling. “I think you’re supposed to inhale them or something,” Mason says, still glancing at the Ziploc.
Mason’s husband, Barry, a tidy 73-year-old clad in a purple fedora and an orange sweater, is seated to her right. He interjects: “I think it’s something related to sex.”
Mason, slightly nettled, inspects the bag and reads the labels aloud: “ ‘Pig Sweat.’ ‘Rush.’ ‘Blue Boy.’ I don’t know why anyone buys this stuff. Sometimes when they leak, you can smell it. And it smells awful.”
“I don’t like it,” Barry grumbles.
Whether they like it or not, the Masons have been dealing in poppers for more than 40 years. Upon returning to Los Angeles in the early 1970s,
she, a burned-out courtroom reporter for the Miami Herald, and he, a special-effects designer and an inventor who made a mark in the world of dialysis machines, needed work. They spotted a classified ad placed by Larry Flynt, who was seeking distributors for his magazines, like Hustler. After responding to the ad and connecting with Team Flynt, Barry went around to local businesses with newsstands asking if they’d like to get their hands on the often-embattled smut rag.
“In two days we had orders for 2,500 copies,” Barry says.
On Santa Monica Boulevard, in West Hollywood, one customer, Book Circus, blew through 600 copies a month of another Flynt publication, Blueboy, his gay hardcore title. “When our truck pulled up, the customers would run outside and help us carry the boxes in to the register,” Mason says. “They loved that magazine.”
Before long, the owners of Book Circus, two gay men, stopped paying their bills — drugs were the rumored cause — and owed the Masons nearly $10,000 for magazines. The Masons, meanwhile, went behind their backs and swiped up the lease from the landlord, reopening the store as Circus of Books. Through their distribution route, they’d developed relationships with several hardcore porn publishers, who felt comfortable selling to them (it was, at that time, tricky to acquire porn), and the couple restocked the store and hired the original staff. They later opened a second location, on Sunset Boulevard, in Silver Lake.
“The stores had sexually explicit material of all kinds,” Mason says. “Transsexual, bisexual — all very explicit. But it was known for the gays. I find it all very distasteful. I don’t know why anybody buys this stuff.”
In 1953, as a response to rising oppression of social outliers under McCarthyism, the nation’s first pro-gay magazine, ONE, went into print. It sold alongside pulp fiction and other risqué material at regular newsstands in major cities.
“The section was covered in a tarp or curtain, and that’s where the naughty bits were,” says Joseph Hawkins, an anthropology and gender studies lecturer at the University of Southern California, and director of the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives. “It was a heady experience because maybe you’d meet someone else who was looking for that same material,” Hawkins says. “Maybe you’d hook up with somebody. Or maybe you’d get arrested by a vice cop, who’d say the material you were taking was indecent.”
The adult bookstore as we know it — or as we will soon remember it — began to appear a decade later, following an explosion in material previously considered legally obscene. In 1964, the Damron Address Book went into circulation. It was a pocket-sized travel guide for gays modeled after The Negro Motorist Green Book, a resource that helped black Americans travel safely through the South.
By the 1970s, Book Circus was well-established as a nexus for gay sex in West Hollywood, where, in typical L.A. fashion, men cruised from their cars, ensnaring traffic between Book Circus, on Santa Monica Boulevard, and Drake’s, another adult bookstore down the street.
Neighbors complained of the nightly congestion, and, to make the cruising block more inconvenient, the city installed odd signs along the cross streets between the two stores, which read, no turns 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. nightly. The regulation and signs remain.
“It was fun!” says a 50-year-old television producer, who wouldn’t give his name. “In the bushes, in every nook and cranny of these sweet little yards on La Jolla Avenue, people were fucking. It was a cruising maze!” he says. “On busy nights, the streets would be packed like a drive-in movie.”
When it came to their children’s teachers, and family and friends, the Masons quickly learned to say they were in the business of real estate.
“We used to say, ‘We have a bookstore,’ and people would say, ‘What kind of bookstore? I love books! Of course we want to come to your bookstore!’ ” Mason’s response would typically be, “No, you don’t want to come to our bookstore. Drop it.”
When the Masons’ daughter Rachel, one of three children, went away to Yale, she came across a book, One-Handed Histories: The Eroto-Politics of Gay Male Video Pornography.
“I went through the names of the [porn creators] in the book, and my parents had something to say about every person,” Rachel says. “That was my first inkling that they were at the center of this world — and knew everybody.”
Rachel, a performance artist, is now working on a documentary about the store, titled Circus of Books, set to be released later this year. She recalls spending plenty of time around the store as a kid, thinking nothing of the merchandise, and sometimes darting between the saloon doors into the adult section just to get a rise out of her mother.
“I haven’t met a gay man over 50 in the entire world who hasn’t heard about this store,” she says. “Even in Europe, it’s a landmark. I interviewed one man for the film who talked about the store like a church. Then he talked about it like a hospital, during the AIDS epidemic.”
Many of the employees came to West Hollywood estranged from their conservative, religious families.
“During AIDS we learned how parents dealt with their children who were gay,” Barry says. “They wouldn’t talk to their kids. We didn’t know that people were like that.”
“And then their kid would die, and the parents would call me,” Mason says. “I had nothing to say to those mothers. Those were perfectly good kids, and they weren’t talking to their child, over being gay?”
It was a different story for the Masons when, in 2000, at Thanksgiving dinner, one of their sons came out.
“I was terrible,” Mason says. “I said awful things that night. I didn’t think I was antigay, but when it came to my own child, I was profoundly affected. I had to rethink a lot of my religious beliefs in a different way, and I’ve done that. It wasn’t easy, and I’m not proud of it.”
For nearly a decade, sales have been meager, if not stagnant, at Circus of Books, and the Masons, apathetically, expect to close both stores this year.
“We’re not interesting. It’s not interesting. Does anyone even care?” Mason says. “What’s going to happen here after we close? Maybe we can rent it to people who will turn it into a coffee shop, or a clothing store, or an art gallery, or something very trendy and modern. That could be nice.”