Review: Circus of Books (2020)

Circus of Books. Directed by Rachel Mason. Netflix, 2020.

Premiere Impressions

Circus of Books examines the lives of Karen and Barry Mason, a Jewish couple with family values who also happen to be the long-time owners of a hardcore gay porn store. Director Rachel Mason, the owners’ daughter, explores the subjects in relation to their family and their impact on LGBT history, but mostly on their family. After acquiring money distributing Hustler magazine, the couple stumbled into owning the titular bookstore and became the largest distributors of hardcore gay porn in America.

            No documentary succeeds without interesting characters, whether they be the subject of the piece or an expert on the subject at hand. The couple at the center of the film absolutely fit the bill, though the piece explores Karen Mason far more than her husband. A deeply religious woman, Karen finds the content she and her husband distribute to be repulsive. In one sequence, Karen anxiously makes her way through an adult merchandise expo, shamefully purchasing products to add to her inventory. It is as uncomfortable to watch as it is fascinating. Here is a woman who, for over thirty years, has made her living as a local business owner, and she struggles to even look at the products she sells. For this reason, and because of Karen and Barry’s heterosexuality, they are surprisingly incompetent when it comes to their own livelihood. At one point, Karen even admits she has run the store for years “without knowing what [she’s] doing.” Their story is a consequence of capitalism: in the need to earn income and provide for their family, they built a life on work of which they are ashamed.

            What the couple did do, though, whether they intended to or not, was provide a place of refuge for both gay employees and customers during the era of the social closet and the AIDS crisis. As the film conveys, pornography is important to the story of queer sexuality, as it allows for the private exploration of sexuality pushed to the shadows. The internet, obviously, changed the distribution of this content to queer people, but the adult bookstore once represented safety and solidarity. Though the film does explore these themes, they really serve as window-dressing to Rachel Mason’s focus on her parents.

            Personally, I think I would have preferred to see this film through the lens of a different director. Being the daughter of the film’s principle couple, Mason is simply unable to detach from her familial role, which narrows her focus. Instead of exploring the impact of the store on gay men’s social and sexual lives in detail, these themes are pushed to the periphery of a story about how interesting her parents are. They are, make no mistake, but, at some point, it just becomes too self-indulgent. In all fairness, I am sure I would do the same thing if I made a documentary about my parents. However, in crafting the documentary as an exploration of her parents’ lives, Mason weakens the significance of their work.

Post-Screening Snippets

  • For all the sexually-bashful folks out there, the film does not use any explicit clips from the Masons’ inventory, but posters and video sleeves do feature exposed genitalia.

The Final Tea

            The film’s most practical application (aka, if I was using it as a teaching tool), would be as an exploration of unconscious bias. Josh Mason, one of Karen and Barry’s sons, recounts his mother’s reaction to his coming out as gay. After an awful reaction caused by spiritually induced shame—she tells her son that his gayness is her punishment for working in pornography—she begins a journey toward acceptance. Rather than just reflecting on how much she loves him and suddenly turning a corner, like we see in fictional portrayals of the coming out story, Karen worked for over a year to revert a bias she did not know she had, reshaping her faith and her understanding of self. The documentary thus succeeds, not as much in its examination of queer history, but as a timely tool to demonstrate the effort needed for those who hate to rewrite their stories.


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