Circus of Books Movie Review: Mom and Dad Run a Porn Shop

A sincere and simplistically topical look at an adult store that became a landmark.
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When Karen and Barry Mason opened up Circus of Books, an LA gay-porn shop, at first, it was a simple business venture for them. A way for them to get by. However, their willingness to open up a place where gay men were free to explore their pleasures became a form of allyship. After 35-plus years, they still saw Circus of Books as a successful venture, yet the documentary named after said shop shows how it became a place of community.

Directed by Karen and Barry’s daughter Rachel, who makes her documentary debut, Circus of Books features interviews of the Mason couple interwoven with former employees who humorously and poignantly express their gratitude for the safe space the Masons created.  Additionally, to bring more solemnity, it has interviews with figures such as Alexei Romanoff, an activist who survived the infamous police raid of the Black Cat tavern on New Year’s Day 1967, and former Hustler magazine editor Larry Flynt who illustrates the threat of free speech that the Masons were constantly hit with by the Reagan administration due to their involvement in the adult industry. 

Pornography and adult films have a likely stigma of being seedy due to their explicit sexual content. Yet, Circus of Books explores how they act as a way for gay men to channel their innermost desires and how the titular shop did so at a time where two men holding hands in public could get them arrested and continued to be a safe haven once the AIDS epidemic started taking the lives of countless members of the LGBTQ+ community. 

As director Rachel Mason explores the family dynamic present with her parents’ shop, she goes further by dissecting her own family life, showing how running the shop forced her mother to reflect on her conservative Jewish beliefs. Especially when Josh, Rachel’s brother, came out as gay. Thanks to some genius editing work by Kathryn Robson, Josh’s reveal of his own backstory is intercut with old home movies and accompanied by a somber score to fit the scene’s melancholic notions. 

In addition, the score by Ian M. Colletti has a seamless transition from being vibrant to accompany the levity that the former store employees bring to having a subdued sound once the documentary explores the Masons’ turbulent home life and *spoiler alert* the shop’s eventual closure. 

After 35 years of business, Karen and Barry Mason closed the doors of Circus of Books. Due to the influx of Internet buying along with wanting to avoid the ongoing uncertainty of the shop’s future, they decided it was best to shut it down. But Circus of Books still works as a successful ode to its owners and the impact they crafted. 

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