By Les Phillips
Circus of Books is a hilarious film about a gay porn book store and its owners, “heartwarming” even, and it’s all true.
Circus of Books, directed by Rachel Mason. Netflix
Young marrieds Barry and Karen Mason started a small business in 1982 and kept it going strong for more than 35 years. Karen had been a journalist. Barry was a sort of engineer who worked on special effects in Hollywood and invented useful little pieces of medical apparatus. But Karen got tired of newspaper work, and malpractice costs made Barry’s career unprofitable. So they bought the lease on a failing bookstore. They worked long hours, expanded their product lines, made enough money to buy their own building and open a second location, raised three kids (who weren’t allowed to watch TV, and had to go to synagogue with Mom), and put them through college. They also did their damnedest to keep the kids away from the family business — which was Circus of Books, the notorious gay porn emporium of West Hollywood. Their daughter, Rachel, grew up to make this documentary. Barry and Karen are the stars — sweet-natured, genial, kind, conservative, very successful, smut-selling grandparents.
There are a number of talking heads in Circus of Books — Larry Flynt, porn stars, former employees, First Amendment lawyers, friends from temple and neighborhood (who only knew that Barry and Karen “owned a bookstore”). But mostly the Masons speak for themselves. Rachel Mason also draws on the family’s large cache of (wholesome, family) home movies, and we see lots of domestic time at home. Barry’s son Micah says he’s “the only person I know whose default state is happiness,” and indeed Barry is a relaxed, genial, loving dad, to his kids and also to his surrogate family at the bookstore. Karen’s such a mom — we see a lot of family meals in the kitchen. But she’s also the serious manager, worrying over balance sheets; training employees; developing the film distribution (ahem) branch of the business; surveying the stock (Which dildos are moving well, which not? Get 20 more copies of School of Hard Cocks! Why do we still sell the New York Review of Books, nobody’s buying); parrying with federal prosecutors . . .
The AIDS epidemic hits — employees and customers get sick and die. Barry and Karen somehow make sure that their workers stay insured. Their kids reach high school and discover, bemusedly, that their young gay friends know *all about* their parents’ bookstore. Josh Mason discovers that he’s gay, and prepares his coming out speech, to be delivered on break from Columbia. (“I had my return flight paid for – it wasn’t impossible that I’d get thrown out of the house.”). Barry is fine with it; Karen can’t deal. It all works out. Karen loves her son. She rereads the Talmud, reads it close and hard, and finds a new way to understand both her faith and her son. (“It took a lot of work.”)
When the industry starts moving toward online platforms, the Masons don’t move it with it. (“We have a website,” says Barry. “It tells you what we have on the shelves in our store.”) The entire print-porn industry takes a hit from the 2008 financial crisis and then another hit from the rapid proliferation of free online product. The guy who published Handjobs magazine goes out of business and becomes an organic chicken farmer. The Masons’ customer base is aging dramatically. “We’re still profitable – but it’s not sustainable,” Karen remarks. By 2015, it’s time to close. It’s also time to send some of the leftover stock to USC’s GLBTQ archive, where Karen marvels at the collection of old physique magazines and Mattachine Society publications from the ’50s and ’60s (“This is where it all started. Imagine, being out in Iowa or somewhere and realizing that you’re not the only one”). She knows that she’s part of that history. “The store served its purpose. But I’ll be happy when it’s closed.”
And here’s a sort of coda: take a look at Karen Mason, retired businesswoman and grandma, marching in a big PFLAG parade: “For twenty years I’ve been trying to educate people about the gender variations in their children. And there are a lot of them. And they’re all OK. And I hope you put that in this movie.”
My goodness, but life is complicated. Few films of any kind engage those complications with such honesty and cheer. Circus of Books is a hilarious film, “heartwarming” even, and it’s all true. Rachel Mason’s love letter to her family debuted at Tribeca last year, and headlined gay festivals, but it is probably not coming to a theater near you. That’s why God made streaming Netflix; catch it there.
Les Phillips teaches at The Nueva School in San Mateo, California. He has written a textbook and a reference book, but he does not usually publish his film reviews.