Circus Of Books ****
Director: Rachel Mason
The story of the owners of LA gay porn store Circus Of Books has been doing the rounds online for a while now, but now a documentary about its final days and its history has arrived on Netflix. Featuring input from previous employee and drag icon Alaska Thunderfuck, famed porn magnate Larry Flynt and classic porn legend Jeff Stryker, the film looks at how adult material used to be at the centre of the Gay Community, as well as how the rise of the internet has decimated that.
In 1976, sweet and suburban Jewish couple Karen and Barry Mason had fallen on hard times. Answering an ad in the paper from Flynt, who was looking for distributors of Hustler magazine, what started as a sideline turned into a pioneering business as they capitalised on the newfound freedoms of LGBT+ people. Their children were told they just owned a bookstore, being forbidden to look at anything in the store and only finding out in their teens from their friends what their parents actually did. And as the AIDS Crisis hit, the Masons became more and more involved in helping the community their customers belonged to.
Looking back from 2020, the whole story is tinged with sadness because of how quickly the internet caused the shop’s decline and fall. As people speak with fondness of how pivotal this shop was to them when they were younger, nostalgia is not enough to keep it trading alone. So for each segment in which we see the heights of its success, we are quickly reminded that nothing is forever.
Made by the Masons’ daughter Rachel, there’s a wistfulness ever-present for simpler times. But even the early days were tainted with obstacles for her parents, who were raided by police, tried for obscenity and had to dig their heels in firmly to maintain the business they had built from the ground up. It’s fascinating to hear about the old days of pornography – the blockbuster Jeff Stryker videos are a world away from your monthly subscription to Sean Cody – and compelling to hear the stories of older gay people about what happened in and around the store (it was a veritable cruising ground, of course). What’s a little more troubling is to hear people refer to it as “central to our community” – is porn something we should really celebrate as “central” to anything? – but the shop certainly serves as a symbol for the whitewashing of Queer Culture as the businesses of the past make way for the new.
Circus Of Books is a spellbinding portrait of two unlikely Queer allies, charting their personal journeys with a community that would become central to their lives. Seeing it through the eyes of their daughter gives it a beautifully inquisitive quality, which will resonate with anyone who has sat down with their parents and asked “so what was the past actually like?”
OUT NOW ON NETFLIX.