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Circus of Books owner remembers the team who ran the gay porn shop

The Circus of Books documentary streaming on Netflix tells my unlikely story — a straight woman married to a straight man raising a family and running one of the best known hard core gay bookstores in the country.

The success of the store was the result of a lot of hard work and help from extremely creative and equally unlikely young people who fell into the opportunity of working in a really successful enterprise. In fact, the employees understood better than the owners the role the store played in the community.

“Circus of Books” is shot at the end of the store’s existence, but at its height there were three locations, 75 employees, a pension fund, and health insurance for all who qualified. It was a place where anyone who had a good idea could try it out and many did.

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The team

Our staff was comprised of aspiring writers, actors, stand-up comedians, and musicians, among others. They were mostly creative people who saw an opportunity for a flexible work schedule that would allow them to go on auditions and play shows while paying the bills.

They could suggest merchandise that might sell in the store while exploring their own diverse interests. People who showed a special interest in an area of the store and stayed long enough could be promoted to buyers.

The store employed an eclectic mix of straight, gay, and transgender people. The qualifications for a job were willingness to work around adult material, honesty, and the ability to learn the cash register system.

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Circus of Books Netflix

Karen Mason, who co-owned Circus of Books with her husband, Barry, is filmed inside the historic gay porn shop for the Netflix documentary “Circus of Books.” Photo: Netflix/2020

The Customers

Customers — some famous, some closeted — were never greeted. They shopped anonymously. No one commented on what was purchased, which could include academic journals like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and a straight sex tape.

In addition to adult material, the stores stocked an excellent selection of books and general interest magazines, including foreign periodicals and newspapers.

Circus of Books closes

I did not like the employer I became by 2019 when the last store — the iconic and historic location on Santa Monica Boulevard — closed. We no longer provided benefits to the staff and could not give full-time shifts.

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We encouraged our people to go back to school and find careers that could sustain them. In today’s COVID-19 environment, I have no idea what those careers will look like.

Chi Chi LaRue’s Circus 

I hope there is a place for brick-and-mortar establishments like the new Chi Chi LaRue’s Circus, which includes beautiful decor, an online presence, and community events that will take the place of the connections made at Circus of Books.

I took advantage of a business opportunity and succeeded with the help of a diverse staff who were able to use their own skills and ingenuity. Hopefully, the new normal, whatever it turns out to be, will provide unlikely avenues for others to succeed as well.

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About the author

Karen Mason

Karen Mason co-owned Circus of Books with her husband, Barry. They operated the historic gay porn shop in West Hollywood more than 35 years. The store is featured in the Netflix documentary "Circus of Books."

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