Circus of Books
Like Rupaul’s Drag Race winner Alaska, Rachel Mason and her siblings were under the illusion that her parents’ small but successful store “Circus of Books” was simply a circus-themed book shop. Karen and Barry are a sweet, straight-laced, family-orientated couple who exude a relaxed yet conservative air. But much like the back room of their store, there is something behind the facade. During their 30 years in operation, this highly unlikely pair was at one point possibly the biggest distributor of hardcore gay films in the entire United States.
Netflix has carved itself an impressive reputation for commissioning compelling documentaries. Tiger King, anyone? The genre should provide a glimpse into either a different time or a different world and ideally leave us both educated and entertained. Circus of Books is a more understated affair in the Netflix catalogue. Under Executive Producer Ryan Murphy, the film offers both a slice of LGBTQ culture and an intricate look at family and its complexities. Mason is now a documentary filmmaker who sensitively captures her parents and their story with the level of intimacy only a close family member would be permitted. The result is a candid, sincere, sometimes moving and often humorous depiction of an everyday couple who unexpectedly enter a world which is foreign to them but one they ultimately embrace.
In 1982, special effects engineer and inventor Barry and wife Karen, a former journalist, bought the store after its owner had entered financial difficulties. Upon learning that the bulk of its business was through selling gay porn, the Masons soon made this the sole focus of their enterprise and subsequently built a loyal customer base.
Considering the store was at its most prominent during the 80s and 90s, periods of huge significance in LGBTQ culture, you’d be forgiven for thinking Mason’s chief concern would be to offer a nostalgic reflection of times gone by. The AIDS crisis is touched upon with Karen and Barry musing over their hospice visits to see sick employees or clients. It undoubtedly makes for moving viewing. The infamous police raid on the Black Cat Tavern, an LGBT bar on Sunset Boulevard, and the subsequent gay rights protests it provoked, also provide a reminder of the unrelenting struggles and discrimination that were inflicted on homosexuals in the past. Mason also focuses on the fact that places such as Circus of Books became safe spaces for gay people, offering a sense of community and even an opportunity for cruising in the pre-Grindr world. With gay porn so readily available online, the gradual decline and ultimate death of Circus of Books was inevitable. It was also the death of a certain time and a way of life for gay people, who still had to hide from harsh judgements and persecution.
Aside from these tangents, Mason’s main focus is on her parent’s journey and her own experience of trying to process the reality of what they did, and align it with the mum and dad she had grown up with. This is what separates the documentary from other insights into gay history, allowing it to be a wholly unique viewing experience. Perhaps the most poignant part of the film is when the focus shifts to Karen and Barry’s son, who came out as gay prior to going to college. 2020 is a far more accepting world than that of decades past, so it’s both heartbreaking and fascinating to see a mother struggling to accept and deal with her son’s sexuality. Karen was raised a devout Jew, with religion still a central aspect of her life, and it took her a year before she was able to share the news with her friends. As with her business, a secret kept hidden from those closest to her, Karen appears to be the personification of contradiction. How can a woman who makes a living from the gay community and who respects, accepts and interacts with gay people, struggle to compute who her son really is?
There’s a great deal compacted into the 90 minutes and we are left with the sense that although the store is physically no more, its spirit, purpose and meaning live on.
Circus of Books is released on Netflix on 22nd April 2020.
Watch the trailer for Circus of Books here: