Film Review: Circus of Books ★★★★

Rachel Mason’s Circus of Books had its world premiere at 2019’s Tribeca Film Festival where is was acquired by Netflix. After a successful festival run it launches on the streaming service on Wednesday April 22nd 2020.

The documentary’s lead subjects, Karen and Barry Mason, are the filmmaker’s parents and the unlikely owners of the titular long-running Los Angeles gay porn store, until its closure in August 2018. In the pre-Internet, pre-hookup app era the Circus of Books store on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood provided a place for gay men to see their sexuality represented, meet other men, as well as to purchase porn, erotic literature and LGBTQ themed books.

Karen and Barry Mason

Thirty years ago, looking for a stopgap to support their young family after their medical device company folded, the Masons stumbled across the idea of distributing adult material when they saw a newspaper advertisement placed by Hustler’s Larry Flynt. In the film we hear Flynt describe how the Masons became a vital part of his distribution network. Throughout their ownership of the store, Karen, a conservative religious Jew who regularly volunteered at her synagogue and her secular family man husband Barry, largely kept the nature of the business to themselves. Rachel and her siblings were told to tell their friends that mom and pop ran a book store.

The Masons began producing hardcore adult films, the proceeds of their prolific output such as Rim With A View, Karen is keen to put out, is what helped put their filmmaker daughter Rachel through college. We hear from one of their stars, gay porn legend Jeff Stryker, about his experience of working on the films.

Circus of Books launches on Netflix April 22nd 2020

Looking back at the Masons’ lives before owning Circus of Books, we learn that’s Karen worked as a journalist interested in criminal justice, reporting on the “smut raids” of the day. Barry was an inventor of dialysis equipment, studied filmmaking at UCLA with Jim Morrison and worked on special effects on movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and tv shows like Star Trek.

Beginning as an intimate family portrait of an unlikely pair of business owners, their children and employees, the focus of the documentary expands to take in LGBTQ history, such as the pre-Stonewall riots demonstration at the Black Cat Tavern, including an interview with pioneering LGBTQ activist Alexi Romanoff. There’s also a compelling section on the US government’s rightwing lust to implement anti-obscenity laws under Reagan. This conservative agenda against ‘obscenity’ led to the Masons’ Circus of Books being raided by the FBI. But they didn’t let that deter them.

Often a reluctant subject, Karen Mason doesn’t view her own story as worthy of examination, but it proves to be fascinating one. Particularly captivating is the section of the film that deals with Karen’s struggle to accept one of her children being gay, despite the nature of her business, having employed many gay staff and along with her husband cared for dying friends during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Many of these young men they cared for had been disowned by their own parents and Barry recalls making hospital and hospice visits. It’s moving to hear both Barry and Karen’s perspectives on the AIDS crisis which saw them lose many of their adult movie performers and store employees. It’s also touching to see Karen go on to become a vital part of PFLAG, marching in the Los Angeles Pride parade.

Karen Mason

Circus of Books succeeds in covering a lot of ground without losing focus and is a deserved tribute to the decades of service the Masons provided gay men in Los Angeles and beyond as we witness the continued closure of many LGBTQ related businesses and communal spaces.

Circus of Books will launch on Netflix Wednesday April 22nd 2020. For more information and to stream the film head here: netflix.com/circusofbooks.

By James Kleinmann

Circus of Books | Official Trailer | Netflix

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