How one religious, straight couple ran a secret gay porn empire in the 1980's

Karen and Barry Mason began distributing porn to make ends meet and soon built an empire of their own.

Karen and Barry Mason pictured smiling
Image: Rachel Mason

Karen and Barry Mason were by all outward appearances the all-American couple. After meeting at a Jewish singles night they had three children together and both held down respectable jobs, with Karen working as a journalist for well-known newspapers in Chicago and Cincinnati and Barry a special effects engineer in the film industry, even working on Star Trek and 2001 Space Odyssey. Little did anyone know, for years the Jewish couple built a gay porn empire, distributing adult films and magazines across the country and running LA’s best-known gay porn shop.

The unexpected career shift was born not out of some shared passion for pornography, but out of sheer necessity. Barry, who worked as an inventor in the mid-1970s, created a safety device for kidney dialysis machines, however, he couldn’t afford the insurance policies the company interested in buying the device were asking for, thus resulting in the project collapsing. This left the family in dire need of cash, so when Karen spotted a job advert in the LA Times looking for someone to distribute pornographic material, the couple secretly entered the business. 

The Masons had found their calling. Within the first few weeks of beginning this very new career the pair received 5,000 orders. They drove around LA in their car to distribute Hustler magazine as well as other merchandise produced by porn mogul Larry Flynt. As well as Hustler, Flynt took over some failing gay porn publications, these were now also part of the Masons’ array of goods. 

The Masons’ continued their work as porn distributors in secrecy and eventually took over LA’s most famous porn bookshop, Book Circus, which they renamed Circus of Books, in 1982. Still, the couple’s career remained a secret, if anyone asked they would just say they ran a bookshop and their three children were under strict instruction to never tell anyone the name of the shop, nor were they permitted to look at or touch anything in the shop when they went to visit.  

The store was an immense success, its popularity not only due to its products but also as it provided a safe meeting place for LA’s LGBT+ community. Circus of Books was so successful in fact that the Masons opened up a second branch and also began producing gay porn videos, all while continuing their work in the porn distribution business. 

However, the story almost ended there. Under President Reagan, who believed pornography, was a “form of pollution”, it became increasingly dangerous to distribute pornography. In a sting conducted by the FBI, the shop was raided and the Masons were charged with illegal transportation of obscene material across state lines. Barry was facing a possible five-year prison sentence as well as hefty fines, and it seemed as though this would be the end of the road for the business. 

However, they fought the conviction and Barry avoided prison time by entering a guilty plea and the shop remained open, all the while their children were completely unaware of the chaos unfolding. 

The need for the shop was more important than ever with the AIDS epidemic striking America. Karen and Barry’s support of the community was a shining light for many in such tough times. Barry made it a point to visit store regulars who were at the end stages of the disease and had entered hospice care, while Karen allowed staff with AIDS to work on the days they felt well enough to do so despite it being illegal. She also paid them cash-in-hand for their work so they would not be found out, resulting in them losing their health insurance. 

However, despite running a gay porn empire and the constant support of the queer people in her life, Karen admitted that when her youngest son came out as gay, she found it hard to accept at first. She explained; “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.” She joined the PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) in order to gain a better understanding of what she needed to do and later on both Karen and husband Barry themselves became PFLAG ambassadors.

Although Circus of Books eventually closed due to the online porn industry boom, the story of the religious straight couple who ran a gay porn empire is a story that still lasts to this day. A Netflix documentary named after the shop will be released in 2020.

© 2019 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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