As a tribute to a queer cultural institution that survived decades of political & cultural turmoil only to eventually be done in by the convenience of online shopping, the Netflix documentary Circus of Books has an almost impossible amount of history to cover in a mere 86 minutes. The now-defunct adult bookstore the movie profiles was a cornerstone of gay life in West Hollywood (a neighborhood historically referred to as “Boystown”) for half a century. Opened in a gay nightclub space that was unjustly shut down via 1960s “morality” raids (the same policing era that incited the Stonewall Riots) and persevering through crises like the AIDS epidemic & the Reagan Administration’s crackdown on obscenity in published media, the Circus of Books storefront saw a tremendous range of gay life, gay sex, and gay political action in its time. You can feel a communal reverence for the store in the film’s interviews with former customers & employees (notably including Drag Race celebrity Alaska Thunderfuck) that extends far beyond its function as a porn distribution hub. Circus of Books wasn’t just revered for its facilitation of anonymous hook-ups or its extensive catalog of gay porno (in a time when that was the only medium where you could see men kissing onscreen). If that were the case, the movie would have to cover all gay bookstores in the US instead of singling out one in particular. The store was revered because it survived several waves of cultural & political unrest to serve generations of gay men (and other queer customers) in a prominent queer neighborhood that suffered those same waves of strife.
So how does one documentary cover all that ground without spiraling out into a Ken Burnsian tome? Smartly, the Circus of Books doc doesn’t even attempt that feat. Instead, the film focuses on the unlikely suburban, heterosexual couple who owned & operated the store for the bulk of its historic existence. This film is less of a comprehensive document of gay life in West Hollywood during the bookstore’s operation than it is an intimate, humble family portrait. Even with all the cultural context it could distract itself with in the moment, Circus of Books is most fascinated by how an unassuming, wholesome straight couple stumbled into becoming the largest distributors of hardcore gay pornography in the US (for a time). There’s almost a true-crime style sensationalism to this dynamic, as the couple who owned the store hid the nature of the family business from their neighbors & children – explaining only that “We own a bookstore,” and not “We own a hardcore gay porn empire.” This is hardly the seedy unearthing of dark familial secrets doc you’ll find in movies like Stories We Tell or Capturing the Friedmans, though. Barry & Karen Mason’s energy here is that they could be practically anyone’s grandparents: sweet, doting, and sometimes politically infuriating old-timers who just happen to sell poppers & lube at their day-job. If there’s any sensationalist detail here it’s that these lifelong pornographers are exceedingly wholesome & ordinary – a normalizing presence in an industry that’s long been inaccurately demonized by Conservative pundits as morally corruptive.
A significant aspect of this film’s normalizing tone as a family portrait is that it was directed by the owners’ own daughter, Rachel Mason. Initially, this insider perspective is valuable as a means of access, especially in Mason’s camcorder footage from her childhood and insight about how her parents’ good-cop/bad-cop dynamic at home translated to their management style as employers. There’s also a peculiar parallel to establish in how both generations are filmmakers in their own right, with Rachel in a documentarian role and her parents producing a portion of the content that Circus of Books distributed in-house (they just happened to produce titles like Rimnastics Gold, Riverboat Sea Men, and Meat Me at the Fair). Where the movie really touches on something special, though, is when those initial shocks of her upbringing’s bizarre circumstances fade to the background. When the film’s not chasing down decades of queer culture history or attempting to (mildly) shock the audience with the details of the Mason family business, Circus of Books strikes gold in capturing the mundane, day-to-day bickering & kindnesses shared between its director and her parents. There is something vividly, universally relatable about the film’s various mother-daughter disagreements (which include whether or not an adult bookstore is worthy of a feature-length documentary in the first place); they just happen to take place in front of unusual backdrops, like an enormous wall of assorted dildos at a sex industry convention. It’s in those intimate, domestic exchanges where the film stumbles upon something uniquely worthy of documentation & broadcast.
Despite the peculiarity of its gay porno industry backdrop, Circus of Books is a fairly low-key, small-stakes family portrait. I don’t think it’d be outrageous to claim that it’s one of the most wholesome films about hardcore gay pornography you’ll ever see. Anyone looking for a comprehensive gay culture history of West Hollywood centered on the eponymous bookstore or a shocking exposé on long-buried family secrets will likely be disappointed by this film’s kind, intimate temperament. It is a fascinating, endearing work as a family portrait, however, one that establishes the production & distribution of hardcore pornography as being just as wholesomely, quintessentially American as baseball or apple pie.