Ifirst discovered Art & Understanding (the original title of A&U) magazine at Circus of Books in West Hollywood, California—a bookstore, porn, and sex shop. It was the mid-nineties and Joan Rivers graced the cover.I actually didn’t walk into Circus of Books for the magazine—but that’s another story! 

Browsing up and down the rickety aisles, besides porn, one could find greeting cards, adult novelties and toys, paperback books, science fiction literature, an extraordinary newsstand that included foreign newspapers, and yes, even Bibles! Circus of Books attracted a wide array of clientele, from children to senior citizens. 

There was also a designated area that was stocked with updates on the epidemic, flyers or brochures advertising where to get tested, and information about what organizations could support you if you were HIV-positive. Who knew that all of this was available in this non-descript and inconspicuous corner building?  

Just as the edifice was unassuming, so were its owners, Karen and Barry Mason, a former journalist and former movie special effects engineer, who raised three kids in a traditional Jewish household. Neither their children, nor their friends and neighbors knew they owned one of the most popular gay porn shops in the area since 1982. The original store, under the name, Book Circus, opened in the sixties.

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Since sales were zooming, the Masons decided to open a second Circus of Books in Silver Lake (East Los Angeles) in the mid-eighties. A third branch blossomed in the late eighties in Los Angeles’ Sherman Oaks area (San Fernando Valley), but after a couple of years was shut down due to neighborhood protests.

They began their new career adventure by helping distribute magazines for Larry Flynt (Hustler magazine publisher and subject of the 1996 film, The People Vs. Larry Flynt, with Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, and Edward Norton). At one point, they started making gay porn (many with the legendary Jeff Stryker), and yet at another crossroads, they were caught in an FBI sting and Barry faced a five-year prison term for distributing pornography.

Sounds like a movie?! It is. Circus of Books is a new documentary produced by Ryan Murphy (The Assassination of Gianni Versace, Glee, American Horror Story, The Normal Heart, Pose), released on Netflix, and cleverly directed by Masons’ daughter, Rachel.

Rachel, forty-one, knew Circus of Books was a benchmark, steeped in Los Angeles gay history. In 2014, when the Mason’s earnestly spoke about closing their Silver Lake store, Rachel knew she had to jumpstart her project to record this memorable piece of history.

Most of the Masons’ employees were men in their twenties and thirties, and many were living with HIV/AIDS. In the eighties, if you were diagnised positive and employed, you were ineligible for Medicaid. So that their staff could maintain their livelihood and keep their coverage, the Mason’s continued to employ them, paying them under the table. Overall, there were about forty employees. “Barry and Karen were the absolute best,” recounts former employee Fernando Aguilar in the film, “They were always so good to me.”

Indeed, the Masons had a personal bond with their staff. In the film Barry states, “We lost so many of our employees and really nice people.” Karen laments, “Talented….bright….young….It was a real, real tragedy.” As she speaks, there’s a lump in her throat. When a worker took sick, often the Masons would pay a visit, even if it was at a hospice. At times, Barry would call the man’s parents informing them that their son was not doing well, asking them if they wanted to visit. Many of them would reply, ‘Naw, I don’t. I kicked him out. I never wanna see the guy again.’” Then Barry would plea with them, “But… he’s…your…son.” Barry shakes his head, not understanding such an irrational mindset.

One employee who opened Circus of Books with the Masons and who had worked very closely with them went home on a Friday——and died on Monday. Karen remarks in the film, “We were working with him, literally, until he passed away. I remember taking a call from his mother after he died. She wasn’t in touch with him during that period and I think she was feeling bad. I don’t know what she wanted from me, but she should have visited him.”

Befriending many of her parents’ employees, Rachel’s introduction to AIDS came like a whiplash. Abruptly, one by one, they wouldn’t come to work. They would never return. What a heartbreaking realization for a kid. At the time, Rachel didn’t know it, but she was witnessing an epidemic. 

Then it became slap dab head-on and hands-on for Rachel. She worked at the long-term care, full medical staff facility, Rivington House, for PWAs. For five years, she was a recreational and art therapist. She sums up her time there, “I became enmeshed in the world of people who both manage and struggle with the effects of this disease.” 

Not only did the disease take a physical toll on people, but it weighed heavily on their mental and emotional lives as well. Those who did not become ill were gripped by a seething terror of getting sick. Known as the “worried well,” those who witnessed the agonizing decline of their peers wondered when they would be next. 

Michael Roman, alias porn star Matt Sizemore, who worked the front cash register at Circus of Books in the mid-eighties, for over three years, concurs.

“Well, it was a very, very different time. It was a real horror,” attests Michael, who was twenty years old when Karen Mason hired him. “There was no living with HIV back then. People were suddenly there and then poof! They disappeared.” He takes a hard swallow. “I know the Masons were very good to the leather daddy manager, Milton, who worked there in 1985, the one who actually hired me. Although it was never really discussed, I think Barry and Karen went the extra-mile for Milton [while he was ill].” 

According to Michael, the Masons looked after another employee, as well. “Bob was a street prostitute, though I don’t think they actually knew it at the time, because he was trying to get out of that life. He lived in one of the apartments right above the store. [Michael sharply inhales; then continues.] Bob was like many others who got very, very sick, fast——and then was gone.” Roman pauses. “I remember a period when he was unable to work and he would just stay upstairs. We all covered his shift.  He was obviously unable to pay his rent….I think he died up in that apartment there above Circus of Books.”  

Today, Rachel has many friends who live and thrive with HIV. Other causes close to her heart are LGBTQ+ as well as immigration rights. She’s also an enormous PFLAG supporter (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, founded in 1973), inspired by her parents. Karen and Barry became profoundly involved after their son, Rachel’s brother, came out to them.

This documentarian is one hell of an award-winning multifaceted artist. In fact, for Circus of Books end credits, Rachel wrote and sings “Give You Everything:”

Let me celebrate what you don’t understand
It’s where I get the strength to be who I am
And if you give me a look
I promise I’ll always give you everything that I have

The talented woman, who graduated with a BA from UCLA and an MFA from Yale, even sculpts. One piece, Kissing President Bush, is a bust of Bush and Mason lip locking, which was the cover feature in the Fine Arts Section of The New York Times. Rachel is also a well-known performance artist, often collaborating with dancers and other musicians.

While attending UCLA, Rachel donned the clothes of her character, Terrestrial Being——white tights, white shoes, and white helmet——and eerily scaled the eight-story campus art building. This performance was one in a video series. Another performance was when Rachel’s character FutureClown lip-synced Trump’s inauguration speech in real time, synchronized, and live-streamed.

Among the venues the artist has exhibited are the Whitney Museum, LAMCA, School of the Art Institute in Chicago, Kunsthalle Zurich, The New Museum, La Mama, and Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art. Rachel has recorded thirteen albums and has toured nationally. Her musical feature film, The Lives of Hamilton Fish, which premiered at London’s Raindance Film Festival in 2015, tells the story of two men who have the same name and who die on the same day, one a statesman and the other a serial killer. Based on a true story!

Residing in the City of Angels, Rachel is hooked into in a serious relationship with Buck Angel, whom she met a year ago at Los Angeles Outfest, the annual LGBTQ+ film festival. Ms. Mason’s favorite film is Pan’s Labyrinth. 

Rachel Mason on set. Courtesy of Netflix/2020

Dann Dulin: How are you getting through COVID-19?

Rachel Mason: I am getting through it by moving to a new house and setting it all up beautifully. [Rachel sighs softly.] I’ve enjoyed all the puttering that I can do around the house.

That sounds adventurous. Good that you have been focused and busy. Your film is extraordinary. [She smiles with deference.] What was the spark that fired you up to make a documentary on your parents?

Back in 2014 my Mom said the Silver Lake store was closing. [Its final sale was on 8th of August 2016.] It was clear if I didn’t start now, the store would close before I had done it.

What was the most difficult task about making this film?

Getting the financing together! In the last year of filming it was so close to the edge and I bit off all my nails dealing with the question of how to pay for postproduction right as we were delivering.

Art is such a challenge in itself, let alone trying to figure out money! What surprised you the most while making this film?

The reaction after it was released. I didn’t expect such an outpouring from all over the world.

That’s sensational! What are you currently working on?

I’m excited about a bunch of different projects in fiction and nonfiction, all of them are different, but they intersect with Circus Of Books in that they deal with religion, sex, and family in different ways.

We need more controversial innovators like you, Rachel. You were just a kid, surrounded by this mysterious disease and your Circus of Book playmates . . . [she politely continues]

… yeh, my parents’ employees and business associates were being killed off. [Rachel swallows hard.] I would encounter these beautiful wonderful people and then find out that they were no longer here. They had died. I wasn’t fully aware until much later when I became embedded in the LGBTQ+ community and spoke to many dear friends about the horror of that time. [She takes a beat.] I thought about it later and realized how unnatural it was for a kid to have this awareness of so much death. I have this kind of retroactive mourning for the beautiful souls that I’m sure I would have been friends with had I been an adult when I met them.

As a kid I can’t even imagine the deep lasting effect it had on you…

[Ahem.] I simply felt a sense of sadness. I would never see them again. [She tosses her head and contorts her face as if it happened yesterday.] What I say in the film during my interview with Micah is that there is now a horror in my retrospective thinking of it, realizing that I was witnessing an epidemic firsthand, and most of these young folks were totally abandoned by their families.

Tragic. Tell me about working at Rivington House.

I worked between there and Village Nursing home from about 2005–2010. There were many homeless individuals. [Rachel halts and then recalls] I was there at the end of life of a very important gay rights activist who was struggling and gasping for air. I wondered why they couldn’t alleviate his pain more, as he was in hospice. They said if they gave him any more morphine it would kill him, and I thought, Well…isn’t he dying already? Why not ease his pain? But the answer was that they couldn’t. It wasn’t permitted to do anything beyond a legal limit.

It’s so inhumane not to grant people their last wish. Any lasting thoughts?

[Rachel takes a steady breath and exhales.] In my lifetime I’ve witnessed this disease going from a very isolated gay community problem, to a global mainstream problem, and have seen how profound it is when a community fights in isolation, versus how it looks when the problem is accepted by the entirety of our culture.

Visit Rachel Mason’s website at: rachelmasonart.com.

RACHEL'S CIRCUS

Tell about your first time getting HIV-tested.
I was twenty-one. It’s so long ago now, that’s all I remember. I had had sex, I don’t even remember with whom, and testing just seemed like an important thing to do for my peace of mind.

Who do you look up to?
Lately, it’s been Joey Soloway [director, writer, producer]. They’re someone who’s showing me the way through the Hollywood apparatus. Joey not only created a TV series (Amazon Studios’ Transparent), but also brought the [LGBTQ+] community into the show in a way that I really love.

Name a series you recently binged.
Wow, there are so many. I watched Ozark. More recently, the Jeffrey Epstein doc.

What image do you have on your cell at the moment?
Funny enough, I don’t actually have one on my cell!

If you could have dinner with someone, dead or alive, who would you choose?
Frida Kahlo.

What do you do when you get depressed?
I meditate. It really helps me….so much.

What’s your life motto?
An old friend who lived to be 103 would say to me, “Rachel, enjoy your life.” So I’ve tried to live by that simple bit of advice.