WeHo’s Circus of Books: A History in Porn

Circus of Books at the southwest corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and La Jolla.
Circus of Books at the southwest corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and La Jolla.

The creased pink cover of a worn, secondhand issue of Blueboy peeks out from a box loaded with vintage porn mags: Machismo, Skin, and Thrust; Honcho, Heat, and Manshots. “They’re fairly popular,” says Karen Mason, owner of Circus of Books. “As popular as they can be, anyways.”
“Through there is the adult material,” says Mason, gesturing to a saloon door. “I’ll let you look through there yourself,” she smirks. On the other side, shelved in dull gray rows, bargain movies, like “Salami Smugglers” and “Long Dong Silver,” line up in flesh-colored featurettes. In the markdown section, “Rimnastics Gold” and “Don’t Tell the Wife” sell at rock-bottom prices. And for lovers of classics there is, in a bin, stacked unceremoniously at the top, the VHS favorite “The Sperminator.”

“Rush” and “Pig Sweat” hang with the rest of the poppers up front: the perfect complement — if that”s your thing, of course—to an alphabet soup of vintage smut. “They smell awful,” complains Mason. “Why people buy this stuff, I don’t know. Then again, I have no idea why anyone buys anything here.”

But among the rare, offbeat erotica, it’s the store’s owners —- Mason, a former courtroom reporter, and her husband, Barry, the inventor of a kidney dialysis machine — that come, perhaps, as the biggest surprise. “We had no idea what we were doing,” says Mason. “I mean, we still don’t,” she laughs, “but back then, we really didn’t.”

Dr. Kenneth Krauss (middle), author of "Male Beauty," with Karen and Barry Mason, owners of Circus of Books in West Hollywood.
Dr. Kenneth Krauss (middle), author of “Male Beauty,” with Karen and Barry Mason, owners of Circus of Books in West Hollywood.

Until the late 1970s, when malpractice insurance entered the picture, Barry”s invention had paid the bills. But the new, wildly expensive premiums—- far too costly for the Masons — sent them, unexpectedly, into porn. “We were newly married, we didn’t own much, and we were wondering what we were going to do.”

And across town, as it turned out, another entrepreneur, this one outrageously more obscene, was wondering the same thing. It was Porn King Larry Flint. “He was having a dispute with his national distributer, so he put an ad in the Los Angeles Times looking for new ones,” says Mason. “And, since he refused to give the old distributers the magazines, we figured, why not?”

From then on, out of the back of Barry”s station wagon, the pair—traders in a wide-open market—struck new deals with liquor stores and newsstands. “Without a lot of trouble, we got orders for 2,500 magazines,” says Mason. “And we took the deliveries at my father’s small tool store in Culver City.”

And one of their patrons at the time, a little West Hollywood hotspot called Book Circus, took a special interest in Flint”s hardcore gay magazine, Blueboy. “The store took so many copies of Blueboy that we couldn”t even deliver them all in one trip. We had to come back to finish the delivery. And when we did, the customers would be waiting outside. They would actually rush out to the truck and carry the magazines inside themselves.”

But unlike their punctual clientele, the store’s owners, rumored to have a drug problem, weren’t paying the bill. So the Masons took the building’s lease instead. “Barry made a deal with the landlord to take over the lease. We hired the old staff from Book Circus, and we basically just set it up the way it was—except with the name Circus of Books. And we’ve been running it with a fairly similar business model since.”

Before porn went digital, the store stood as a gay cruising mecca. On the corner of La Jolla and Santa Monica Boulevard, in the heart of West Hollywood”s “Vaseline Alley,” an entire era of clientele scoured their racks, and their patrons, looking to get their hands on a little relief.
“There was a lot of activity in the alley behind our store,” says Mason. “People would meet each other here, and even though we, as owners, kept out of it, it was definitely a pick up spot. I think when Circus of Books opened, this was such a special place for people who were gay, or were trying to come out or feel comfortable.”

But now, after decades peddling porn, business, says Mason, just isn’t what it used to be. “You won’t see many new faces here,” she says. “You’ll see older people who have been coming in for years and years.”

“We”re at the end of an era,” she says. “The neighborhood has changed a great, great deal. I mean, today, with the Knternet, with gay marriage, there’s less need for the niche that our store occupied all those years, which is, I think, a good thing.”

And with diminishing sales, along with an aging clientele, Circus of Books, says Mason, likely will close up shop in West Hollywood as it already has announced plans to do with its Silver Lake store. But in the meantime, on its walls, encased in cheap plastic jackets, porn stars still play old memories: time capsules to another era, the mementos of a generation.


7 Comments
  1. If you believe this building is historically significant and want to preserve it, preventing the current or future building owners from demolishing, then take action now and petition the city for designation.
    Don’t wait until its too late then blame the City’s leaders for allowing the building owner to invoke his/her own property rights.
    Acting now is prudent and comes across as sincere – waiting until plans for redevelopment and demolition discussions for the site often appears anti-development and calls into question the sincerity of preservationist intentions.

  2. Um. The invention of the kidney dialysis machine is credited to Willem Johan Kolff. Mr. Mason appears to have some patents related to dialysis, but other than your article, I see no source where he is credited with inventing the machine.

  3. Sadly, I think it will be demolished as well, like all the rest of W. Hollywood’s great institutions…..thanks to their leaders, the city is losing almost all of its character.

  4. The end of an era for sure.. That building bring so much melancholia to the gay movement back then.. I hope the city doesn’t do away with the building. It’s such part of the city’s history.

  5. I’m sure it’ll get demolished and a parking structure or a modern new overpriced restaurant will be built, in true West Hollywood fashion.

  6. I hope they don’t demolish this great old building. It’d make a nice restaurant with high ceilings and lots of character.

  7. Karen and Barry are an extraordinary couple–true Renaissance humans that continue to lead this incredibly interesting life. They have kept Circus of Books going in the digital age out of love & respect for their long time employees, to make sure their employee’s pensions would be good for them in their retirement. The help exemplify the Jewish term of Tikun Olam–to heal the world.

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