Hidden within the hustle and bustle of West Hollywood, there lived a curious little bookstore. In 1976, Karen and Barry Mason were looking to make ends meet for their young family when they came across an ad in ‘Hustlers’. It wasn’t long after that that Circus of Books was born. This modest bookstore went on to become the largest distributor of gay pornography in the United States. Stocked with gay porn, adult sex toys, LGBTQ novels, science fiction books and Bibles, Circus of Books is a beloved and dog-eared page out of Los Angeles’ gay history.
Documentary filmmaker Rachel Mason turns the camera on her parents, guiding a familial warmth to the screen as they recount their tale with comedic rhythm. The documentary is made up of cosy home-movie footage switched between recent interviews of family members. The film explores the family’s conflicting relationship between their Jewish faith and their livelihood, with a focus on the parent’s prerogative to protect their children during a time where LGBTQ people were not accepted by wider society. They endured FBI raids, faced jail time for a federal obscenity charge, and opened their store up as a place of refuge during the AIDs epidemic. As the film steps into the 21st century, the couple reflects upon gay hook-up culture and the digital era’s detrimental impact on the bookstore.
Both Circus of Books establishments have since closed their doors, evoking a retrospective and nostalgic atmosphere throughout the film. Rachel interviews a spectrum of supporters, from former employees to porn stars and LGBT activists. RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Star, Alaska, appears with first-hand testimony as an ex-employee. The audience is introduced to adult film star Jeff Stryker during a particularly memorable interview. Stryker recalls how the Masons first branched out into hardcore film distribution while demonstrating an action figure of himself (the figurine comes with an erectable penis). Although Karen maintains that they never viewed the movies, she and her husband are, without a doubt, notable figures within pornographic history.
Karen and Barry both play down their generosity, which may speak to their internalised struggles as well as their humbleness. Rachel doesn’t airbrush her parents as saints, nor does she paint over Karen’s strained reaction to her youngest son Josh after he came out as gay. Over time, the bond between Karen and Barry with their three children strengthened. Karen went on to become an active member of PFLAG, the largest organisation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) people, their parents and families, and allies.
However, the film did fail to raise questions about the arguably exploitative nature of gay pornography− an opinion that is often heard in relation to the straight porn industry. What the documentary may lose in objectivity, it makes up for in openness. This is a story brimming with tenderness and humour and is an unlikely tale that should be smiled upon. Rachel Mason manages to capture her family’s presence using her own lens. Circus of Books is an intimate glimpse into a unique business venture and an untold chapter of gay history.
Circus of Books will be available to stream on Netflix from April 22nd
by Charlotte Little
Charlotte (she/her) hails from North East Scotland and is a 22-year-old hard of hearing and visually impaired student, film lover and subtitles enthusiast. She regularly writes for UK Film Review, Flip Screen and Scratch Cinema with a focus on disability representation and accessibility within the film industry. Charlotte’s favourite movies consist of A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Shutter Island, Lady Bird, The Devil Wears Prada and many many more. She is currently pursuing a career in film programming. Read her ramblings at @ALittleOutlook