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‘Circus of Books’ Review: A Perfect Portrait of Mom and Pop’s Gay Porn Shop

Tribeca: Rachel Mason's loving tribute to her Jewish parents and their unconventional business is a rare delight.

“Circus of Books”

Tribeca

Like any good Jewish mother, Karen Mason has a lot of opinions. Specifically, opinions about why her daughter is making a movie about her. “What are you gonna do with this?” she asks skeptically, as she tosses around boxes of gay porn magazines and DVDs with the workmanlike nonchalance of any small-business owner. Later, when she drops off a donation at USC’s National Gay & Lesbian Archives, she will marvel over a zine display: “You should be doing the documentary about this.” Of course, Karen’s dogged pragmatism, and her complex relationship to the smut that provided her family’s livelihood for thirty years, is why “Circus of Books” is such a rare delight — and a nearly perfect documentary.

Documentaries in which the filmmaker plays a part pose a particular challenge; they can elevate the form, but must be undertaken carefully. “Circus of Books” doesn’t mine the meta-theatrical depths of Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” did (that wouldn’t fit here), but it does benefit from the personal touch of a filmmaker bringing her family secret out of the closet. Mason’s film has more in common with last year’s “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood,” an entertaining sex comedy that shed light on what might otherwise have become a forgotten chapter in gay history. Unlike that good-time film, however, “Circus of Books” leaves no loose ends, and makes its many points with just the right finesse.

Mason begins by introducing her subjects, Barry and Karen Mason, loving parents of three and purveyors of the finest gay smut. From Honcho to Handjob to “Rimnastics Gold Part II” — you name it, Barry and Karen Mason sold it. A former courtroom reporter and an observant Jew, almost everyone interviewed agrees that Karen “wears the pants” in the family. Barry, on the other hand, is described by his son Micah as “one of the few people whose default state is happiness.”

After Barry’s ingenious medical patent no longer supported them, Karen and Barry responded to an advertisement from Hustler founder Larry Flynt looking for independent distributors to carry his magazines. Honest, hardworking, and conveniently located in the Los Angeles area, the Masons quickly fell into the lucrative business of supplying explicit magazines to their eager customers.

Most eager of them all? Gay men.

“Porno always had a place in the gay community,” former customer Don Norman says. “Because we didn’t see anything like that. To see men naked and unafraid. That gave us a lot of pride.”

When a prime West Hollywood location right on Santa Monica Boulevard suddenly became available, the Masons jumped at the opportunity, changing the name from Book Circus to Circus of Books so they could salvage the old sign. They employed many gay men, and the store became a popular cruising ground and community space. “Circus of Books was my first glimpse of the fact that I wasn’t alone as a gay person,” says one former employee.

Mason keeps a thread of tension taut throughout, never losing sight of the contradictions between her parents’ work and their home life. The kids didn’t know the true nature of the family bookshop until they were teenagers, partly due to Karen’s religious beliefs. The family attended a conservative Jewish synagogue, and Karen’s closeted son internalized the congregation’s negative views on gayness. Funnily enough, Karen had a hard time accepting his sexuality at first. Mason pushes her mother firmly on this point, and Karen is honest about her former beliefs, her change of heart, and her regrets that she even needed one.

The film is engaging from start to finish, with a rotating cast of bright and eloquent speakers. The wonderfully subversive drag queen Alaska Thunderfuck offers thoughtful insights in his distinctive timbre. Before becoming a “RuPaul’s Drag Race” legend, Alaska worked at Circus of Books. At one point, he describes Karen and Barry’s attitude toward the store as “like selling apples in an apple cart.”

Larry Flynt appears to offer insight into the legal dangers he and the Masons faced due to strict obscenity laws during the Reagan and Bush eras. The Masons even got into producing their own porn at one point, and connoisseurs will no doubt enjoy seeing their frequent collaborator and former porn star Jeff Stryker interviewed.

“Circus of Books” is chock full of entertaining characters, but Karen ultimately emerges as the film’s complicated and fascinating heroine. Her journalism career, her forthright nature, and her skepticism at the film’s very premise — that her life’s story is actually quite remarkable — make her an endlessly intriguing subject, lovingly but truthfully rendered by her filmmaker daughter.

In the film’s funniest scene, she hurries through an adult merchandise expo stocking up on inventory. After hurriedly ordering a bucket of anal lube from a butch in a fedora named Ellen, she happens upon a wall full of flesh-colored dildos. “This wall would probably do well for us, whatever it is,” she says, averting her eyes.

Grade: A

“Circus of Books” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 26. Netflix bought the rights to film ahead of its premiere.

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