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Meet the religious, conventional straight couple who ran a secret gay porn empire in the 1980s

Lily Wakefield December 11, 2019
straight couple gay porn empire

Barry Mason and Karen Mason attend the premiere of "Circus Of Books".(Rodin Eckenroth/Getty)

A conventional, religious straight couple secretly ran an LA gay porn empire in the 1980s, and now the family have spoken out about their double life.

Karen and Barry Mason met at a Jewish singles night, had three children and began their careers in regular jobs. Karen worked as a journalist, and Barry was a special effects engineer for films like Star Trek and 2001 Space Odyssey. 

But according to the BBC, when the family ran into some financial problems Karen saw an advert in the LA Times looking for a distributor for the straight porn magazine Hustler and decided that they should give it a try.

The couple became an instant success, distributing 5,000 orders from their car within the first few weeks. Porn magnate Larry Flynt, who produced Hustler, soon acquired some failing gay porn publications and the Masons began distributing those too.

They continued to build their new business and when LA’s most well-know hardcore gay porn shop Book Circus began to struggle they decided to take it over in 1982. Renaming it Circus of Books, it became a refuge for the local LGBT+ community.

But by owning the shop, they began a double life for their entire family.

Karen told the BBC that, as well as from the outside world, Karen and Barry kept the business a secret from their children.

She said: “We didn’t want them to know what we did at all. ‘We don’t talk about the family business – we own a book store, and that’s what we tell people.'”

The secrecy didn’t last for long, and one by one the children found out the truth about the family “book store”.

Middle child Rachel found out from friends when she was 14, and said: “The thought that they of all people were doing anything countercultural was the opposite of who my parents really were, to me.”

The youngest, Josh, added: “There’s a level of conventionality in our family. We were striving for the perfect family look.”

But when US President Ronald Reagan began to clamp down on pornography and published the anti-porn Meese Report in 1986, Circus of Books got into trouble.

It was investigated by the FBI, and Barry was looking at a five-year prison sentence for the illegal transportation of obscene material across state lines. He eventually pleaded guilty and did not serve prison time.

As the AIDS crisis set in, Karen and Barry became even more supportive of the gay community. Barry would visit store regulars who were now close to death in hospices and Karen tried to bring some sense of normality back to her staff fighting the disease. 

Although they were not allowed to work and would have lost their health insurance, Karen would let staff with AIDS work on the days they felt well enough.

She said: “I let them come to work and paid them cash, which was illegal, but there was no reason that they should lose who they were.

“I have always felt that work is important.”

Despite being around queer people every day, and owning a business rooted in the LGBT+ community, when her youngest son Josh came out as gay Karen found it hard to accept.

She said: “I was fine with anybody who was gay, as far as I was concerned, but I really wasn’t prepared to have a gay child.”

Trying to control her reaction so as not to hurt her son, she sought help. She continued: “I needed to understand what it was to be a parent of somebody who was gay.

“I joined this organisation called PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).

“I had to get OK with it, and [accept that] parents often have expectations for their children that really reflect more on the parents than on the children.

“When it came to my own son, I realised I had some thoughts about gay people that needed to change.”

The couple later both became PFLAG ambassadors.

As online porn took over the industry, Circus of Books was eventually forced to close, but the Masons’ secret porn empire has been cemented as part of LA’s queer history.

The documentary Circus of Books will be released on Netflix next year.

More: circus of books, documentary, Jewish, Los Angeles, netflix, porn empire, straight couple

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