Circus of Books (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Her parents’ unconventional business


Netflix documentary film “Circus of Books”, which was released on last Wednesday, tells an interesting personal story revolving around an old gay porn shop in California and its unlikely owners. As they admits to us at one point in the documentary, they never considered staying that long in their naughty business field, but then they found themselves closely associated with sexual minority community as doing their business for many years, and it is alternatively amusing and touching to watch how they have tried to balance themselves between their business and private life.

At first, we are told about how Karen and Barry Mason, the parents of director/co-writer/co-producer Rachel Mason, were rather clandestine about their job in front of their three children. Although Mason and her two brothers gradually came to learn that their parents were the owners of a well-known local gay porn shop named Circus of Books, Karen and Barry never talked about their business at their family home, and the children simply used to tell others that their parents ran a bookstore.

Now quite more honest about their business than before, Karen and Barry gladly talk about how they happened to meet each other and then get involved with gay porn business. While Karen was a plucky journalist who eventually came to consider working as a freelance writer, Barry was a technician who actually participated in the post-production of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), and they instantly fell in love with each other when they came across each other at one evening party. Not long after they got married, Barry had an unexpected business success through his accidental invention, but then they unfortunately found themselves tumbling into a difficult financial circumstance, and then they found a seemingly good business opportunity from a newspaper advertisement from Larry Flint, who is, yes, the notorious founder of Hustler and was looking for any local distributor willing to distribute his sex magazine in California at that time.


Because no major distributer in California or many other states in US was eager to be associated with Hustler, Barry and Karen could easily strike a deal with Flint, and their distribution business soon got more successful than expected. When they were subsequently offered the ownership of a little gay porn shop named Book Circus, they did not mind at all just because it looked like another good business deal, though they did not know anything particular about its main customers.

After renaming and then reopening the shop, Karen and Barry came to interact a lot with a big local gay community surrounding the shop. As shown early in the documentary, the shop happened to be located in the middle of an urban area which had attracted many different sexual minority people, and Karen and Barry’s shop soon became another important spot for many of their customers and employees. Regardless of what they thought of sexual minority people before, Karen and Barry treated their customers and employees without any contempt or condescension, and they even came to produce a number of gay porn videos once they saw another lucrative business chance from that.

However, things got quite dark for Karen and Barry as well as their customers and employees during the 1980s. During that gloomy period, the American queer community was considerably devastated by the AIDS epidemic, and Karen and Barry still remember how many young people around them succumbed to AIDS. In case of one gay employee of theirs, Karen reached to his parents when he was about to die at a hospital, but they promptly refused to see him, and their heartless refusal certainly shocked her a lot.

Meanwhile, Karen and her husband came to face a serious legal problem as the US government launched a pretentious war with obscenity in public, which naturally threatened them and many other distributors handling adult stuffs. When they later had to deal with a federal obscenity prosecution, Karen and Barry seriously consider pleading guilty, but they were advised to fight more, and that led to a far lighter punishment than they worried at first.


However, as time went by, Karen and Barry found their longtime business slowly faded into the past because the tide was turned due to the rise of adult business on the Internet. They try as much as possible for staying in business, but it becomes more evident to them that their good time is over now, and they eventually decide to close the shop.

Vividly and humorously illuminating the business history of her parents, Mason sometimes looks into their fairly conventional family life, and the most poignant part of the documentary comes from how Karen and Barry came to accept the homosexuality of one of their three kids. Mainly due to her conservative religious background which somehow did not clash much with her business activities, Karen initially struggled to deal with her son’s homosexuality, but, thanks to her lifelong interactions with sexual minority people, she came to support him along with her husband, and she went further as joining a support group for parents with LGBTQ kids.

On the whole, “Circus of Books” is both informative and entertaining as providing another interesting viewpoint on the American queer history, and I was constantly amused or touched throughout its 86-minute running time. Things have surely changed a lot for sexual minority people out there during last 40 years, but they still need support and compassion even at present, and I personally hope that my parents, who still disapprove of my homosexuality, may learn something important from Karen and Barry – if I ever manage to have them watch this wonderful documentary.


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