Musician Bob Villain wore dark sunglasses and had his face painted white when he performed at Circus of Books in early May. Playing a white electric guitar with branches strapped to his hands, he covered Lana del Rey’s “Video Games” in a deeply amplified voice, so her listless ballad sounded like something from a horror movie. A small crowd squeezed around the merchandise in the back corner of the long-standing adult bookstore, located at Sunset and Sanborn in Silver Lake. Barry Mason, who co-owns the store with his wife, Karen, watched from behind the counter and, in the front half of the store, the regular fluorescents remained on. Circus of Books, which is technically still open for business, has hosted numerous concerts in the last two months, and art has been placed sporadically in and around the regular merchandise.
Outside, beneath the pseudo-Western lettering that spells out “Circus of Books,” the words “Going, going, going, gone” have been stenciled on the wall near a “For Lease” sign. The Masons are searching for a good tenant to repurpose the Silver Lake space. Across town, in West Hollywood, the original Circus of Books — called Book Circus when it opened in 1967 — has no such sign, but the Masons say it probably will close soon, too, maybe within the year, as business at both stores has slowed.
Much more art appears in the WeHo store than in the Silver Lake store, but it's all part of an exhibition — on display until mid-June — called “Art Must Go,” an homage to the store's impending closure. Glazed ceramic poppers, small bottles meant to hold alkyl nitrites, by artist Chris Bogia sit in a glass case near the front. A mug shot of 1970s porn phenom Peter Berlin hangs above bookshelves. Through the saloon-style doors in the “over 18” section, butt plug–inspired sculptures by Yeni Mao hang high above DVD shelves. The same computer-printed signs used to label all the videos also label the artworks.
“It’s a little chancy to be putting fragile and expensive art in a place where tweakers or backpackers hang out late at night,” says Billy Miller, the artist, curator and publisher who organized the show with artist Rachel Mason, daughter of owners Barry and Karen. He's referring to the notoriously sketchy nighttime scene along Santa Monica Boulevard, and the fact that Circus, for years open 24 hours a day, still stays open late.
Miller began talking to the Masons about doing a show a few years ago, when he first heard the stores might close. Then, this winter, when closing seemed imminent, he and Rachel Mason contacted artists they knew. By April, they’d installed an exhibition in the West Hollywood space on the “edges of what was already there,” in Miller’s words.
“It's a very unconventional situation,” he continues, “putting together different worlds that are kind of incongruous.” All the art is for sale, and people take it home when they buy it, as they would anything else in the store. Purchased objects have been slowly disappearing ever since the opening.
Miller, who lives in New York, knew about Circus of Books before he met Rachel Mason through art-related circles. He had worked with the estate of Bob Mizer, the king of beefcake photos in the 1940s and ’50s and founder of Physique Pictorial magazine. Miller now also publishes iconic gay zine Straight to Hell, which Circus carries.
When he began contacting other artists, Miller found that they, like him, had fond feelings for the store. Some had shopped there. “There are businesses that you assume will be there forever,” he says. “That store is one of a few remnants of another time.” It's been memorialized over the years, in literature that captures certain, eccentric versions of L.A. history — in the memoir Zen Confidential: Confessions of a Wayward Monk, monk Shozan Jack Haubner goes through Circus' “bell-jingly door” to rent a “flesh flick” starring his doppelganger. In David Leavitt's novellas The Term Paper Artist and Saturn Street, his protagonist repeatedly cruises Circus of Books in WeHo, sometimes looking for sex, and at one point goes in search of a dated fetish film at the Circus in Silver Lake.
When the Masons acquired the bookstore, it was a matter of being in the right place and having the right instincts. They were young parents in need of extra income. Barry had worked in Hollywood, Karen had been a court reporter, and the medical-product business they'd started wasn’t taking off.
Larry Flynt, then involved in a dispute with his West Coast distributor, posted an ad. He wanted someone to take over the Los Angeles delivery routes for Hustler and other mags in his porn empire. The Masons began delivering magazines. One store in particular, Book Circus in WeHo, sold so many copies that they had to keep replenishing the supply. They sold Blue Boy, Flynt's gay-porn mag, at an especially staggering rate. So they were surprised when Book Circus’ owner stopped paying his bills. They asked around and discovered the owner had a drug habit and was being evicted. They went to the landlord, proposing that they take over the store’s lease. In 1982, they became proprietors of the store they renamed Circus of Books, hiring back the previous manager.
“For many years, we never closed,” Karen Mason recalls, sitting in the box-filled basement of the Silver Lake store, which they opened in the mid-1980s. She mentions a time the front window at the WeHo location broke. They locked the door until they could fix it, but customers walked in right through the window, over shattered glass. “We've done everything with the store opened,” she says.
The Masons don't necessarily make sense as adult retailers. They appear old-fashioned and speak with some skepticism about the success of certain merchandise. “I suppose that’s what some people are into,” both say at various points during our discussions, and in other interviews they've given. They emphasize that, mostly, they want to run a good business.
“I think when it started it was very, very unusual,” Karen says. “You'd come in and it was a clean, well-lit place. You could walk in there and find all the best-sellers. You had to go through these curtains or saloon doors to get to the adult content.”
The separation between the “regular” books and the risqué material made the store feel open to anyone, and lessened the shame associated with buying porn. “That wasn't our concept,” Karen says of the saloon doors. They've been there since before the Masons took over, and they're still there. (“I didn't know how this place made money until I went in back and found the dildos,” someone wrote in a recent Yelp review.)
In the early aughts, when Rachel Mason was studying art at Yale and then living in New York, the L.A. art world and Circus of Books began a quirky relationship. The Chinatown gallery scene had just emerged and Rachel would visit it when in town. “I would go to all these little hole-in-the-wall galleries in Chinatown with her,” Karen remembers. “I thought, I have a better space, on Lexington.” That was where Circus of Books had its storage and distribution center. “It seemed to me art wasn't a hard business,” Karen says. As with magazines, you could return what art you didn’t sell.
In the mid-2000s, artist John Knuth, a friend of Rachel’s, moved to L.A. and began staging performances and shows in the Circus stores. When Circus Gallery opened in 2007 in the Hollywood warehouse on Lexington, Knuth became the director. The gallery continued for almost three years, staging shows by young L.A. artists now better known — brazen performance artist Dawn Kasper showed there, as did painter Ami Tallman and painter-sculptor Michael Decker.
“So for a while we sold art,” Karen says. “We closed when the recession hit, but a lot of bigger galleries closed, too.” Maybe they could've continued, she muses, but the business had been more quixotic than she’d anticipated. Merchandise didn’t move. Foot traffic was sporadic. Prices for one-of-a-kind objects could be exorbitant.
Now, once again, she’s selling art. “There've been some mishaps with the show,” Karen says of “Art Must Go.” In mid-May, a customer at the WeHo store wanted to know if he could negotiate a discount on a work priced at $400. Karen happened to be in the office. She called Miller, who happened to pick up, and the two agreed on a price change. If she hadn’t been available, the man probably would have left. She considers the collection of $30 limited-edition artist prints the show’s most successful aspect. “They’re a real bargain,” she says, and they’re easy for employees to explain to customers.
“She cares about running a really good business,” Rachel Mason, who recently moved back to L.A., says of her mother. “Her decisions are entirely business decisions. What she actually wanted was to raise her kids, and yet she's done this so well.”
As a child, Rachel had been instructed to tell classmates and friends her parents worked in real estate. It wasn’t until she was older that she realized her parents knew players in a queer underground that would in many ways influence Rachel’s art. Artists like Vaginal Davis and Bruce LaBruce, who both push boundaries and have a raw, flamboyant aesthetic, had visited the store, and now their work hangs there. “She always let my friends do things at the store,” Rachel says of Karen.
Right now, in collaboration with producer-director Cynthia Childs, Rachel is working on a documentary on Circus of Books, tracing it back to the decades before the Masons took over, interviewing gay porn stars, publishers and others. Her parents hadn’t been interested in a documentary before — they’d had offers — but with their daughter on board, they agreed. “I'm happy these things can happen,” Rachel says. “All I am is a conduit.”
The Masons haven’t updated the store's decor in years, because its appearance never affected business. The recognizable signage looks like a relic of a pre-gentrified, less regulated moment. The soon-to-close store now seems fringe and defiant not because of its merchandise but because of its refusal to adapt to a digital, glossier world. “I'm friends with a lot of people who are nostalgic for this kind of gritty realness,” Rachel reflects. “That gives it its charm.”