It seems like Rachel Mason has been asking questions her whole life. In Circus of Books — the Netflix-acquired documentary from the director, musician and all-around artist — Rachel turns her curiosity and artistic prowess to her family and their unconventional living as owners of a gay pornography shop in West Hollywood.
In Circus of Books, the documentarian is just as integral to the story as her subjects. There is an unprecedented intimacy and access that comes with filming and telling the story of your family — and Mason expertly incorporates old home movies from her childhood to complement the story of the store’s history.
Circus of Books follows the life and death of the now defunct gay pornography and book shop of the same name. Growing up, Rachel and her siblings didn’t know the extent of their family business — just that they owned a bookstore, and they were only allowed to look at the floor when they were inside — but the store served as an important cultural space for the gay community in Southern California for decades. Loyal customers reminisce about cruising in the book stacks, losing their virginities in the alley behind the store and finding a sense of belonging.
Karen and Barry Mason — Rachel’s parents — stumbled into West Hollywood’s queer scene almost entirely by accident. Karen was a criminal justice reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer and Barry worked as a special effects artist in movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek. Barry was also a skilled inventor, making most of their income from a dialysis machine until malpractice insurance forced them to sell their rights and try something else.
That something else came in the form of Larry Flynt, a magazine distributor Karen once interviewed in her journalism career. Flynt put an ad in papers nationwide for local businesses to distribute his sexual publications as most traditional distributors at the time would not take them. Without a substantial source of income, Karen and Barry took a chance and became one of the first distributors of Hustler and eventually gay publications like Blueboy and Mandate, making a home and a career in a local bookstore on the brink of closing.
While the store caters to a very specific audience, Circus of Books has a lot to say on the harsh realities of running a small business in the internet age. The bookstore was open for 33 years, but it lost its steam starting in 2008 with the economic crisis and the rise of e-commerce. Small businesses have been hit hard by the instant gratification and markdowns of Amazon and other online retailers — but it’s especially pertinent in the world of pornography where so much is available for free.
Also with the rise of the internet, we are seeing a major loss of physical queer spaces. Gay and lesbian bars are disappearing, along with gay porn shops like Circus of Books. While there is a benefit to digital queer spaces — they can give a sense of safety and security to a new generation of queer people — they are playing a role in erasing historically significant spaces in the real world.
There were problems even before the internet, though. During the Reagan administration, sex shops — especially gay sex shops — saw nonstop crackdowns from the FBI on the basis of profiting off “obscene materials.” And the ongoing AIDS crisis was completely ignored under Reagan — taking the lives of many young queer people including the adult film stars the Masons worked with. Karen and Barry were unsure if the store or the community they helped foster would survive in such a hostile time for queer people in America.
Much of Circus of Books follows the history of the store and of Rachel’s parents — but it is also a festering introspection of how the business affected their familial relationships. A prominent through line in the documentary is Rachel’s brother discovering his queerness and Karen reckoning both with that realization and her devout Jewish faith.
Even though Karen ran Circus of Books, it was just her business — not a lifestyle. She supported LGBT rights tangentially but felt her relationship to God strain when someone in her own home came out as gay, which forced her to step back and reevaluate her own beliefs.
There are plenty of heavy and emotional moments in Circus of Books — but the film is not without charm and genuine laughs. Karen and Barry have a playful dynamic and know each other so well that they can push the other’s buttons with ease — and there are several instances of Barry cracking unintentional one-liners in a bright blue Hawaiian shirt. The film also features comedic banter from former employees — most notably the drag queen, Alaska Thunderfuck 5000.
Circus of Books memorializes a cultural landmark that just couldn’t survive in the internet age and paints an intimate portrait of the unconventional family behind it. It’s just as charming as it is gut-wrenching, and it ties the knot with a bittersweet red handkerchief.