Review By Frances Winston
Directed by: Rachel Mason – Starring: Barry Mason, Karen Mason, Larry Flynt, Jake Stryker
Available to stream on Netflix
The mom and pop shop is a huge part of Americana. It’s not that there aren’t, and haven’t been, family run businesses everywhere in the world, but there is a special sort of romanticism about the American mom and pop shop. It speaks to ideals and family values. And Circus of Books is no different, except (look away now Donald Trump) that they specialised in selling gay porn.
Run by Barry and Karen Mason, the most unlikely purveyors of adult material you have ever seen, the store was a stalwart of the Los Angeles gay community (and a well-known cruising spot) for over three decades, until a downturn in business, due to the digital revolution, forced them to shut their doors in the last couple of years.
But the story here is not about the store, but rather about Barry and Karen, and how this mild-mannered suburban Jewish couple with three children found themselves running a lucrative adult business, even branching out into distributing porn.
Indeed, nothing in their backgrounds ever indicated they would go down this road. Barry was an engineer and inventor (even inventing safety devices for dialysis machines that are still used).
Meanwhile Karen was a conscientious journalist, who specialised in highlighting issues and stories that others wouldn’t.
But when they both found themselves struggling to get work, she contacted Hustler publisher, Larry Flint, whom she had previously interviewed, with a view to becoming a distributor for the magazine, in order to support their young family. What was supposed to be a stop gap for the couple eventually took on a life of its own, and ultimately led them to Circus of Books, which was struggling before they took it over.
Unsurprisingly, they weren’t exactly telling all and sundry what they did. So far as people in the community, and their children, were concerned, they just ran a book shop. It was only in recent years that the family became aware of the true nature of the store, and here their filmmaker daughter, Rachel, explores their bizarre life and career.
It’s soon apparent that the couple are incredibly well-respected in the porn and sex industry, for always being honest and decent to the people they worked with. Of the two of them, she has struggled more with their choices due to her deep faith, but as the end draws near, she is still sad to see their life’s work disappear.
Interwoven with the story of their career is their family story, with Rachel’s siblings also contributing how they felt when they learned of their parent’s true work. Along the way, the siblings also connect with each other, as they reveal things on camera that they had never said before.
This is an absolutely fascinating story that plays into our voyeuristic tendencies as humans. You don’t know what goes on behind closed doors, so we like being given a glimpse into it, and truth really is stranger than fiction.
Barry and Karen are extremely likeable, and exude such warmth that, despite them talking about their work, it is difficult to equate them to it.
Perhaps their daughter wasn’t necessarily the best person to direct this. Although it touches on an FBI investigation against the pair, it feels almost throwaway. The darker side of the business is never really dwelt on – much like when Rachel was growing up. She does a good job, but the seediness of the industry in general could have been highlighted more.
Despite this, Circus of Books is funny and heartwarming, and will no doubt make many people rethink their perception of people who work in the porn industry.