The most wholesome smut lies in Circus of Books

The documentary directed and co-written by Rachel Mason, whose childhood was defined by the profession of her parents who owned a highly influential bookstore in the 70’s and 80’s. Still streaming on Netflix.

First premiering at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, the beloved documentary executively produced by Ryan Murphy made its way to Netflix in April 2020, after the COVID-19 pandemic hit America hard in early 2020. In a real tale directed by Rachel Mason, the documentary follows the story of her Jewish parents who owned the famed hardcore gay pornographic store Circus of Books. The film may discuss the subject of sex, morality and religion, the conservative objection of homosexuality, and how uninhabited the world of gay porn was (and still is), but ultimately this is a real life story of a hard-working American family.

Husband and wife Barry and Karen Mason in the Circus of Books store (source)

What is successful about Circus of Books is the times when Mason is able to emotionally connect with her subjects; her mellow, caring and soft-spoken father Barry Mason and the conservative, proud and religious matriarch Karen Mason. Ironically, the film feels very open and therefore leaves a door open for the audience to enter their world, when in fact Karen and Barry often felt uncomfortable by their profession and tried hard to lead a ‘normal’ American family life and hiding the existence of the store from their children growing up and the family’s synagogue. Rachel’s discovery of what her parents sell in their bookstore as a teenager is a humorous tale that must be seen to be believed.

Interviewing the family members such as Rachel’s siblings, their family friends including Rachel’s high school friend Fernando Aguilar, the family’s lawyer, gay porn legend Jeff Stryker, Hustler magazine creator Larry Flynt and formal employee and RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Alaska Thunderfuck 5000, the film feels multilayered through their testimonials in painting a picture of the safe space of acceptance and solidarity the store became and acted as for countless gay men for many years. Its most touching moment is when Barry Mason discusses how many former employees of the store would later become victims of the 80’s AIDS crisis.

The director makes a wise decision in compiling the story into a 93 minute documentary, and keeping the store’s legacy concentrated and specific. Yet whilst the family is very much the core of the film, the store Circus of Books not only acted as the ‘hidden’ sixth member of the Mason family, it is how Karen and Barry gave queer people (mainly their employees who were often gay men) a surrogate family. Rachel Mason succeeds in capturing the portrait of a Jewish family that was linked to a community not acceptable by the cruel world of 80’s America, and how in some degree being Jewish and at one point hard up, the family related to their struggle. She blends the saddest and harshest of moments, with very funny and provocative tales of owning a hardcore gay pornography store.

(from left to right) A discussion at the Hampton International Film Festival; HIFF Artistic Director David Nugent, Circus of Books’ owner Karen Mason, director Rachel Mason and HIFF co-chair and moderator Alec Baldwin (source)

Though not outrightly explicit, this may be a film for an acquired taste, but for those with an open mind you will be rewarded with a surprisingly honest and vulnerable tale of two parents wanting to make the best life for their children, unaware of the significance of their store turned into advocacy for the LGBTQ community that needed an ally at the worst of times.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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