“We own a bookstore… a hardcore gay adult business,” admit Karen and Barry Mason. The couple are the most unlikely pair to own and distribute porn and sex paraphernalia in the history of porn and sex paraphernalia. More likely to be spotted at a James Taylor concert on a Friday night, the two came to own their bookstore through circuitous means. In Circus of Books director Rachel Mason, their daughter, charts her parents’ history in relation to their eponymous business and discovers a microcosm of how America has grown to accept gay culture.
Mason doesn’t approach her documentary as a distant observer. And how could she? Her reflexive filmmaking becomes essential throughout as she teases out varying layers of her parents’ personalities while experiencing multiple cathartic moments in observing her family.
Karen (the authoritative spouse) and Barry (the jokester) are an odd couple with regards to their temperaments. Karen, a former journalist, is very matter-of-fact. There are several instances where she chastises her daughter for asking personally probing questions or even making a documentary about the famed bookstore at all. Barry provides pure comic relief and continually keeps a heavy subject from wallowing in the mire.
However, neither couple ever shared the business with their children nor would they allow them to tell their school friends what their parents did for a living. Instead, they hid in the shadows as they produced a line of gay-porn films and sold magazines. Neither, even when told otherwise, ever seem to grasp the importance of Circus of Books for many within the LGBTQ community — the haven the bookstore provided for many of these men who otherwise would have been ostracized or worse (which posits pornography as a liberating medium).
Interestingly, the couple is also disparate when it comes to acceptance. Barry, very aware of the AIDs epidemic that killed many of his employees, visited the young men who worked for Circus of Books as they laid dying in their hospital rooms. He recounts his shock when he discovers that many of their parents wouldn’t visit them because of their sexuality.
In her parents, Mason also uncovers a nuanced struggle with regards to homosexuality that mirrors the ruminations of many Americans. Karen and Barry having always viewed their store from a purely business perspective, never considered their own attitudes toward gays (even as they worked alongside of them).
The couple’s demeanor matches what many whites have felt post-Civil Rights. Whites had no problem working alongside Blacks, sharing stories about each other’s families, or jokes. However, they’d probably never let their own daughters date a Black man. Karen differs from those whites (other than being racist), because her reluctance to accept her son’s homosexuality stems from her religious background rather than a hierarchical upbringing.
Mason spends the second half of her documentary following her mother’s road to accepting the presence of a gay family member.
While Mason’s documentary exercises itself of that demon, a moral ambiguity does exist on the part of the couple, as Circus of Books became a haven for “illicit” gay sex. Karen and Barry appear to be aware of some of the activity, but the documentary never makes clear when such practices ceased at the famed bookstore. Did such get-togethers occur frequently during the AIDs epidemic? The topic appears murky, even though its inception was liberating.
Circus of Books provides a micro-familial example of a macro mindset within America towards homosexuality. Mason toes the line between memorializing her parents’ legacy and offering a succinct appraisal of their personal foibles while also doing a bit of a family group therapy session in the middle of it all. And while Karen and Barry might not fully grasp their “lurid” bookstore’s appeal or importance, Mason’s documentary does a wonderful job of telling them what they should already know: Circus of Books was indispensable. And for those wishing to understand a slice of LGBTQ culture and history, Mason’s poignant film is a high-priority watch.
Circus of Books was acquired by Netflix for future release.