CIRCUS OF BOOKS – Review by Martha K Baker

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When the Mason children asked their parents what they did, Barry and Karen Mason always answered, “We run a bookstore.” What they did not say was, “We run a hardcore adult bookstore for homosexuals.” Publicists for this eye-opening documentary emphasize the contrast of a nice couple in the demimonde–ka-ching!

But that’s not the documentary that Rachel Mason has made about her parents and brothers. Her fine documentary considers not only that contrast but also the roles of the bookstore, called Circus of Books, played in the lives of homosexuals, of Karen’s conservative Jewish synagogue, and of the Internet’s quashing Mom-and-Pop — here, literally — stores. “We’re an aging, ailing business,” Karen says.

In interviews with her parents, Rachel Mason presents them as they are. Barry, a sweet, smiling man, and Karen, a firm, organized woman, who, by being managerial, is unflatteringly declared to wear the family’s pants. Karen and Rachel even swat at each other verbally on camera. The Masons tell their daughter how they ended up buying the bookstore. Not incidentally, when Karen worked as a journalist, one of her assignments was a profile of Larry Flynt of Hustler magazine fame.

The Masons closely witnessed the AIDS crises and the anti-obscenity crusades by hypocritical politicians. One of the most poignant parts of the film involves their son Josh’s coming out as gay, never an easy task and, oddly here, not made easier by his parents’ lives in the gay community or Karen’s role in her homophobic synagogue.

Rachel Mason interviews employees of Circus of Books to round out the portraits of her parents. One of the employees grieves over the bookstore’s end with era’s. “It was not just a place of commerce,” he said. “It was a place of gathering.”

Circus of Books gathers together the subjects of family, religion, hate, acceptance, commerce, and a place called Vaseline Alley. Mason has done well by her parents and their capital venture into the world of gay porn. Her vital documentary reveals the heady, bawdy mixture of family and business. Circus of Books streams on Netflix.

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Martha K. Baker (Archived Contributor)

I first taught film at Lakeland College in Wisconsin in 1969 and became a professional film reviewer in 1976 in St. Louis, Mo. Through the years, I have reviewed films for the St. Louis Business Journal, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Episcopal Life, and KWMU (NPR), among other outlets. I've reviewed at KDHX radio, my current outlet, for nearly 20 years.