Written by Ram Venkat Srikar
At the center of Rachel Mason & Kathryn Robson’s Circus of Books is the bookstore run by the former’s parents, which predominantly houses gay pornography. Barry & Karen Mason ran the store – that established itself as the heart of the gay universe, in the neighborhood – for 30 years. “It’s a long time to do anything”, says Karen, as she sits on a couch with Barry in their living room. She wears a red top, she is an aggressive woman; he wears a Hawaiian shirt, he is full of joy with a consistent smile. The film lets us into their home and lives. The conversations which primarily shape the film are all people sharing the memories they have formed with the store, with the couple who ran it, and what the store represented.
Amid a casual conversation with her filmmaker-daughter revolving around the monitory issues associated with the store, Karen dismisses her daughter’s choice to film such an insignificant conversation, citing “every small business goes through something this”. What Karen politely ignores, though, is the fact that Circus of Books is no small business. On the fiscal scale, maybe. On the scale of impact it had, it’s humongous. The couple’s perception of running the business, purely and solely as a financial exercise, clearly draws boundaries between the store and home.
At home, Rachel and her two brothers knew little about what their parents did for a living. “They run a bookstore”, is the response they are accustomed to when questioned. This ‘business is business’ facet they established, clearly demonstrates how respectable and dedicated the couple has been to their work, being completely aware of the possible reactions it may invoke.
Circus of Books strives to make profuse potent points, and proves efficacious in successfully landing every single one of them. Three macro elements the film addresses are (1) resistance from world, (2) religious belief, and (3) importance of acceptance, with the latter being the most compelling facet of the film.
The family passes through phases that test the volatility of the three aforementioned factors and emerges unhinged through all of them. When I write “family”, it includes the store as well because it is only their appendment, and all the three factors are closely related to the store. Being a symbol of ‘unnaturally’, the store draws up defiance from the government in the context of obscenity, and the couple has to fight the government.
Moving to religious beliefs, Karen’s strong beliefs don’t stop her from pursuing business in a line that her religion clearly disapproves of, but is reminded of her faith, when someone deeply close to her comes out as gay. That is where the third factor jumps in. The importance of acceptance, which is what the film’s climactic act is designed around will make sure you shed some tears, owing to how successful it is making us realize that everyone deserves love, regardless of their sexuality. And love is the most powerful religion to exist, if only everyone adapts it.
The 85-minute documentary tracks down and explores various elements associated with the store and succeeds on every front. Ranging from the store’s significance to the neighborhood’s gay population, the proliferation, the lows, withstanding change, the impact it had on people over the years, all in the form of a lovely little documentary that is as much about the world, as much as it is about this lovely little family.
Despite the impact, Karen still believes it’s just another business, while I’m sure Barry finds something else to do, with his iconic smile. In the short span, the film takes us on a 30-year journey, we see what the store stood for – a place for gay men to make friends and lovers – and follow it as it nears closure. The store, sadly, is no more sustainable in the age of internet and free pornography. Fair enough. But Circus of Books was not just about gay porn. It was about the social experience in the real world. The end of the store is the end of an era, to put in a dramatic line.
In the end, Circus of Books is all about love, acceptance, and family. If I, a straight guy living in India – where gay pornography stores are an alien concept – can empathize with the film, that is certainly because the film puts the ‘human’ above other additional specificities such as, you see, sexuality.