'Circus of Books' Review: How a nice Jewish couple's business became 'the center of the gay universe'

The premise alone makes this film worth a watch and it is a great window into the LGBTQ universe at a time before free internet porn and Grindr hookups


                            'Circus of Books' Review: How a nice Jewish couple's business became 'the center of the gay universe'
Karen and Barry Mason (Netflix)
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The most difficult and the easiest thing to make is a documentary about your own parents. This task gets infinitely more complex when the straight-laced parents you grew up with also happen to be the largest distributors of gay porn in the US during the '80s and '90s. 

Rachel Mason does a reasonably competent job of weaving intimate family history with how her parents, Karen and Barry Mason, managed a mom-and-pop chain of stores catering exclusively to the gay community, selling everything from adult magazines, books, sex toys, and videos and at one point, becoming producers of porn films themselves.

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Rachel has intimate access to her parents and brothers, Josh and Micah, who are at the heart of this documentary. She also interviews high profile names in the LGBTQ community and the porn industry - from RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars' Alaska to Larry Flynt, the publisher of 'Hustler'. 

They all appear on camera, often starting with the words "your parents were..." showing how central Karen and Barry Mason business was to the LGBTQ culture in the US at the time. Their 'Circus of Books' chain of stores was "the center of the gay universe" while the couple kept the nature of their bookstores a secret from their friends, their children (until they were older), relatives and members of the synagogue that Karen was a part of.

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It is a documentarian's dream-scenario in some ways. But for that very reason, you wonder why Rachel has kept herself out of the story, except in one segment where she is filmed crying when Josh speaks about his struggle with coming out to his family.

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By keeping herself as a mostly behind-the-camera presence and failing to be objective since this is a story about her family, after all, there is a curious fractured emotional energy in the segments featuring the family. The life-long familial resentments and bitterness bubble underneath the surface as subtext but are never expressed or addressed explicitly on camera.

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Karen, in particular, seems miffed about the one-sided scrutiny her daughter is subjecting her to. As a mother and a woman who has always been in control, she seems to be at a loss when it comes to the control her daughter is wielding from behind the camera.

Part of being a documentarian is learning how to get the most out of your subjects and I wonder if the film would have been better if Rachel had allowed her mother and father to ask her, and her siblings, questions about how the family business affected them - especially Josh, who felt, growing up, that "gay was a bad word".

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However, Rachel does a much better job interviewing strangers, from former store employees to people from the porn industry to the lawyer who protected Barry from being convicted as a felon, to gay men who survived the AIDS epidemic, who were at Stonewall and who remember the 'Circus of Books' as one of the few safe spaces they felt free to be themselves.

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The premise is fascinating; how a mainstream, heterosexual Jewish couple with an extremely conventional family life was also simultaneously part of the subversive, counterculture LGBTQ movement at a time when being "out meant you were an outlaw". That alone makes this film worth a watch and it is a great window into the LGBTQ universe in the time before free internet porn and Grindr hookups.

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Instead of concentrating on only the tragic and activist moments, Rachel captures the goofier, happier moments of community, solidarity, and expression, even the porn clips from the era have a wholesome, home-grown, nostalgic feel to them. Times were a bit simpler back then when a bandana hung on the right meant you wanted to hook up and a nice Jewish couple could even think about being in the porn business. 

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'Circus of Books' releases on Netflix on April 22, 2020.