Movie Review: Circus of Books
By Matthew Huntley
May 5, 2020
Given all the rich, real-life comedy, drama, scandal and secrets tied to Circus of Books, a gay pornography bookstore and novelty shop, you’d think writer-director Rachel Mason would have forged a fictional Hollywood screenplay out of its bizarre history and baked it into one of those wacky, hard-to-believe movies that sells itself by being “inspired by actual events.” If she had, she likely would have been praised for her inventiveness.
But, to our surprise, and to the film’s benefit, Mason takes a more low-key approach and simply presents the narrative surrounding this famous (and infamous) establishment honestly and matter-of-factly. She lets its history and people speak for themselves, and the result is an unexpectedly funny, touching and wonderfully energetic documentary. It’s also a deeply personal film, although not just for Mason, who isn’t shy about putting herself on camera. By being so open, inviting and gently confrontational with her interviewees, the story behind Circus of Books ends up feeling just as relevant to us as the people it directly touched. Seeing their reactions and listening to their words, we instinctively think of ourselves, our families, and the various jobs we’ve had over the years. Eventually, we come to believe we too could make a documentary that’s just engaging and relatable about our own lives, albeit with much different details.
So what are the details behind Circus of Books? Divulging too many of them would be doing the film a disservice because “Circus of Books,” like all great documentaries (and all great films for that matter), consistently peels back new layers, with each one more absorbing (and often shocking) than the last. The first introduces us to the Mason Family, who we see in home movie footage during what appears to be the late ‘80s or early ‘90s as a young Rachel videotapes her mom, Karen, and dad, Barry, making dinner. It’s a typical home movie and Karen and Barry seem like typical, loving parents, and indeed they are, but unbeknownst to their friends, family and even three children, Karen and Barry happen to own and run Circus of Books, a gay porn shop. That’s not exactly typical for an otherwise “normal” suburban Jewish family.
Nevertheless, what’s charming and refreshing about Karen and Barry is how practical, hard-working, intelligent and impartial they seem to be (and have always been), even as the former owners and managers of a gay porn boutique (they eventually had to close both Circus of Books branches in 2016 and 2019, respectively). With big juicy smiles on their face, the couple candidly tells us they always saw their business as just that—a business, one that made money and sustained them and their kids, which just happened to sell gay books, DVDs, sex toys, etc.
We get the impression Karen and Barry viewed Circus of Books the same way they viewed their erstwhile, more socially acceptable and mainstream careers. Karen once earned a healthy living as a prolific journalist, covering an array of topics and interviewing such high-profile figures as Larry Flynt, while Barry worked as an inventor and special effects technician in Hollywood, finding himself on the crews of such classics as “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Star Trek.”
I’ll let Karen and Barry fill you in on the specifics, but a few years into their marriage they fell upon hard financial times and Karen used her leverage with Larry Flynt to distribute porn magazines to generate extra income. This eventually led them to Circus of Books, originally called Book Circus, and in 1982, the couple assumed ownership of the West Hollywood business and opened a second location in Silver Lake. For years, no one close to them—not their parents, kids, friends, other worshipers at their synagogue—had any clue how they made their living.
However, once the cat was out of the bag, the Masons began to see (and continue to see) the extensive role Circus of Books and its unique culture played in their lives, both as individuals and as a family unit. This becomes an important theme and useful takeaway from “Circus of Books”: the jobs we perform day in and day out not only influence our own points of view, the decisions we make, the biases we carry, the struggles we strive to overcome, but also those of our families, friends, co-workers. Essentially, our jobs are never our own.
As I mentioned, it would be unfair to reveal too much about the history of Circus of Books or the testimonies that come from Karen, Barry, Rachel, and Rachel’s brothers, Micah and Josh, not to mention the store’s various former employees and patrons, including LGBT Rights activists Alexei Romanoff. Everyone Rachel interviews brings an amusing, thoughtful and often heartrending insight to the table and it’s best not to know about them beforehand.
What I can say is that Mason and her co-writer and editor, Kathryn Robson, find a near-perfect balance of humor, drama, talking heads, walking bodies, old news footage, and emotional reaction shots that turn “Circus of Books” into a genuinely engrossing experience. It has a universal appeal not only because it’s educational but also because it feels so nostalgic in the way it gets us to recollect our own families and upbringings. At the same time, it targets and deflates the stigmas often associated with sex, pornography, and homosexuality, and even though it’s clearly a liberal, left-leaning film, it’s not overly pushy. Mason has crafted it in such a way that we’re able to see gay porn (and those who patronize and make it, including Karen and Barry themselves at one point) objectively as a legitimate industry. Whether or not you agree that gay porn should be allowed to exist in the first place, “Circus of Books” shows us how it functions like any other business, and it’s inherently interesting.
More importantly, though, the film encourages us not to make assumptions about people or places, be they good or bad. It reminds us each possesses its own unique history, one that’s impossible to fully know, although we can bet it’s a mix of the silly, serious, light, dark, humorous and sad, and just as “Circus of Books” shows, has the potential to be thoroughly entertaining.