After years of reading about 19th-century erotic publishers, I had to watch Netflix’s documentary, Circus of Books (2019), on the gay adult bookshop of the same name in California. The documentary focused on the couple, Karen and Barry Mason, who took over the bookshop in 1976 and became the largest distributors of gay pornography in the United States. Watching the documentary, I learned some of the struggles that the Mason’s faced which reflected some of the similar struggles that nineteenth-century smut publishers experienced as well.
19th-century erotic publications were highly illegal, and peddlers and publishers who were caught selling the items or printing them were hit with large fines and or jail time. Publishers had to think of new ways to sell their prints, books, and guides to prevent imprisonment. One way was by selling off public officials to look the other way. The publishers also worked with one another and created a network to help one another during an arrest and other financial needs. Publishers also focused on distributing their publications through the mail which added further protection to them and the consumer. (1)
In 1857, George Akarman, a publisher in illicit print reorganized, his business to only distribute his products to individuals living outside of New York. The impressive aspect of Akarman changing who he sold to geographically, was he then had to reevaluate how he edited and wrote his publications to interest potential consumers outside of the city. Akarman’s decision to distribute outside of New York was a success and allowed his business to flourish without the same level threat of being arrested. (2)
In 1873, Anthony Comstock, the secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, traveled down to Washington DC to present a series of laws that made it illegal to circulate licentious literature through the mail, the laws passed and became known as the Comstock laws. Comstock became the United States Postal Inspector and strove to enforce his laws. Due to the heightened raids on book publishers in New York, publishers looked to the mail as a way to send out their publications discreetly and using different names. (3)
Comstock attempted and successfully caught publishers who were distributing illicit publications through the mail. He did this by posing as a potential buyer while using a false name. After several letters back and forth, Comstock received the illicit publication that was used as evidence against the publishers. In 1881, an “anti-spy” bill was introduced to the New York legislature that would have made the evidence obtained by Comstock’s strategy inadmissible in court. Although the bill did not pass, Comstock’s tactics came under criticism. (4)
Barry Mason of Circus of Books found himself in a similar situation as the publishers did with Comstock. During the Reagan administration, law enforcement strategized on eradicating pornography. Although Circus of Books primarily distributed to stores who they already had a history with, one day a shop from Lebanon, Pennsylvania called and made an order. One of the staff members entered the order and shop into the Circus of Books’ computer and then mailed out the order. The order ended up being a sting operation from the FBI, which led to Barry being charged with a federal felony of distributing pornography across state lines. The felony charges came with prison time and heavy fines. The election of Bill Clinton resulted in a new prosecutor, causing the sentencing to be lightened. Barry’s corporation pled guilty, and he received probation. (5)
While the Masons’ children were completely ignorant to the type of bookstore their parents ran until they were older, both Barry and Karen ran the business together. A 19th-century publisher, William Haines, ran his illicit book shop with his wife, Mary Haines, for about 30 years. Haines was not alone, William Simpson, another 19th-century publisher, also operated his erotic book store with his wife. While it may seem surprising that women were involved in licentious publications, the work of owning and running the business necessitated the wife’s participation in the business. (6)
Although the experiences of Barry and Karen Mason were different than 19th-century publications who were under constant threat of being arrested, there were still many similarities. The Masons feared being alienated from their friends, family, and synagogue because of their work in pornography and Barry faced potential jail time for distributing porn across state lines. Although the Masons fell into the porn industry to simply support themselves, their work was incredibly important to many in the gay community in LA and the Masons gave many men familial support who did not have a relationship with their own parents. Towards the end of the documentary, Karen drops off a few items from the store to the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries. While she does not believe the work she and her husband did was momentous, the act of donating items arguably depicts that she is aware of the importance of their work. Circus of Books is currently streaming on Netflix, and I highly suggest it!
(1) Donna Dennis, Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing and its Prosecution in Nineteenth-Century New York, (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2009).
(2) Ibid., p. 182 – 185
(4) Ibid., p. 269 – 271, 300
(5) Circus of Books. Directed by Rachel Mason, California, 2019.
(6) Ibid.; Donna Dennis, Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing and its Prosecution in Nineteenth-Century New York, (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2009), p. 142 – 143, 234-235