CIRCUS OF BOOKS
(director/writer: Rachel Mason; screenwriter: Katryn Robson; cinematographer: Gretchen Warthen; editor: Kathryn Robson; music: Colletti; cast: Larry Flynt, Justin Hornard, Karen Mason, Barry Mason, Josh Mason, Jeff Stryker, Matt Sterling; Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Adam Baran, Cynthia Childs, Camilla Hall, Rachel Mason, Kathryn Robson; Futureclown Productions; 2019)
“We get an insider’s look at a rich source of LGBT history.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A non-judgmental documentary about this sweet straight couple, Karen and Barry Mason, the owners of a “Mom and Pop” bookstore called the Circus of Books, that caters to gay readers and at one time was the biggest distributor of hardcore gay films in the United States. During this time, the couple raise two children, the girl Rachel and the boy Josh, and when they were growing up never told them what kind of bookstore they operated. Their daughter Rachel (“The Lives of Hamilton Fish”) has now grown up and become a documentary filmmaker, and made this film. Her parents are seen through the camera of Rachel, as we get an insider’s look at a rich source of LGBT history.
Karen worked as a newspaper reporter, while Barry was a special effects guy in Hollywood.
In 1976, the couple were not doing so well financially and answered an ad in the Los Angeles Times from the publisher of Hustler Magazine, Larry Flynt. He was seeking distributors for his sex ‘zine. The couple took him up on that and distributed the magazine to the city bookstores despite the possibility of facing jail time for a federal obscenity prosecution.
In 1982, when one of their clients lost his lease for not paying the rent, the Masons acquired his dinghy bookstore called the Circus of Books. It’s located on Santa Monica Boulevard, in the heart of West Hollywood. They fixed it up and immediately started selling directly to the gay community, where they quickly became an institution in the “queer” community.
The store sold the usual magazines and printed matter out front, but by going past the swinging doors and into the “back room, ” the ADULT’s only section, the customers could buy or rent stuff like hardcore gay videos, sex toys and gay books. It was even possible to hook up with other gays there, but that was not on the couple’s menu.
The couple hit gold with the VHS boom, and adult videos soon replaced magazines as their most profitable item. The Masons even began producing their own hardcore movies, partnering with director Matt Sterling and gay porn star Jeff Stryker to create their own content. Though they insist that “We never saw any of those movies.”
It seems odd that this nice Jewish couple could be in such a business, but that’s life, I guess! Karen says, when her son Josh said he was gay, she had difficulty coming to terms with that.
Lacking any drama, the film gets over merely as a genial homage to an unlikely couple who ran a pioneering business, now a bygone institution, in the ’80s and at a time during the AIDS crisis.
How the couple ran such a controversial bookstore and raised children in their traditional Jewish family and still kept the faith, gets a warm treatment from their filmmaker daughter. She lets us see that her parents weren’t monsters or angels, just ordinary folks trying to live the American dream.
REVIEWED ON 4/18/2020 GRADE: B