Circus of Books (Netflix) Review | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, November 28th, 2020  

Circus of Books

Netflix

Apr 22, 2020 Web Exclusive
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There is more than one time in every person’s life when they think, “My family’s life could be a movie.” In the case of Rachel Mason, she put those thoughts into action with the documentary, Circus of Books, executive produced by Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story). One of three children, Rachel is the daughter of Karen and Barry Mason, the owners of famed and longstanding titular gay porn shop. Unconventionally, Rachel is also one of the subjects of the film, the camera on her frequently as she conducts the interviews, capturing her as much as the interview subjects.

From the very start, the characters and attitudes of Karen and Barry are established. A pragmatic and practical couple, for them, Circus of Books is not about being activists or fighting a good fight. Instead, it’s a business that can support their family. Karen, a credible journalist with a background working for The Wall Street Journal and Barry, a filmmaker who turned his skills into making a dialysis machine, started in the porn world unintentionally. They answered an ad Larry Flynt (who is one of the people interviewed in the film) put in The Los Angeles Times for independent distributors for his magazines. They took on the delivery gig part-time and Book Circus, the gay porn shop in West Hollywood, was one of their drop-off points. When the establishment was going under, they bought it, switched the sign around and got into the “hardcore gay adult business,” in the words of Karen.

The story is told visually through a combination of shaky home movies and grainy photographs, accurate, low resolution period footage from various times during Circus of Books’ three plus decades in business, plus present-day filming, which, at certain points, continues that handheld feeling of the early video recordings. There is a non-glossy quality to the whole documentary that adds to the feeling of its authenticity and mirrors Masons’ unfussy approach toward life and work. 

Watching Karen go through the merchandise at the store, looking like the Jewish grandmother that she is, speaking casually about Hand Jobs Magazine and how the cock rings are selling while the 7-Eleven style chimes of the door every time a customer comes and goes, is enough to make your mind melt. The input from former frequenters of the store as well as employees sums up Circus of Books as a safe place, a place to find information and literature and to feel like you belong and you’re not alone. It’s also a place to “cruise the stacks” and have an anonymous encounter behind the store in “Vaseline Alley.”

The Masons expanded into producing gay adult films—that neither of them every watched. But as Karen points out, the films paid for Rachel to go to college. The trailers for infamous gay porn star Jeff Stryker’s films are priceless. Even better is Stryker himself in the present day, playing with his anatomically correct doll and its movable parts, including yes, that one.

At one point, according to Flynt, Circus of Books was the biggest distributor of hardcore gay porn in the United States. And the target of an FBI sting operation who purchased some material through mail order, and then had Barry convicted of shipping of obscene material over state lines. Barry didn’t go to jail, just probation, where he signed in once a month declaring he hadn’t committed any crimes and went on his way.

Still, Karen and Barry didn’t tell anyone what their family business was. Devout, particularly Karen, and active in the synagogue they belonged to. When they did have to divulge what they did for a living, the response they were met with was invariably, “I don’t have a problem with that,” which implies that there is a judgment component. As Karen says, you wouldn’t say that if someone said they were a teacher or a lawyer.

As removed as the Masons were from the products they were selling, thinking of the commerce side of it more than anything, they were attached to their employees and their customers, all of them gay. And they lost many of them to the AIDS epidemic, which is clear is a pain that is still with them. 

Perhaps the most powerful moments of the film are those between Rachel and one of her brothers, Josh, who is gay. They speak about how he felt growing up, how difficult it was for him to come out to his parents, how scared he was about their reaction and how alone he felt the entire time. Rachel, who has been outwardly living a queer life since high school, is the most emotional during these exchanges. At the time of his coming out to the family, Karen felt Josh’s being gay was God punishing her for having a gay born business. But the film ends on a very uplifting note with scenes where Karen and Barry are active and leading members of PFLAG, showing a complete turnaround in accepting their son. 

The Masons thought Circus of Books would be temporary until something came along that was more substantial, but they kept the store going for 35 years until the advent of the Internet firmly put them out of business in 2019. As some news clips in the film say, “Porn is the destroyer of families,” but porn is what allowed the Masons to keep their family together and afloat. (www.netflix.com/circusofbooks)

Author rating: 6/10

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