Review: 'Circus of Books' - Netflix Doc Profiles L.A. Gay Bookshop Rachel Mason and her siblings grew up unaware that their parents ran a gay bookstore. Her "affectionate but thinly realized" documentary skims the surface of stories that deserve deeper dives.
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The Mom-And-Pop Bookstore That Sold Gay Porn: 'Circus Of Books'

For years, Karen and Barry Mason ran a Los Angeles bookshop that sold and distributed gay pornography. Netflix hide caption

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Netflix

For years, Karen and Barry Mason ran a Los Angeles bookshop that sold and distributed gay pornography.

Netflix

"We own a bookstore."

For her entire childhood and most of her adolescence, that's all that Rachel Mason knew about what her parents did for a living and all she cared to understand. Kids tend not to sweat the particulars of how they have food on the table, clothes on their backs, and a roof over their heads, and the Masons, Karen and Barry, were perfectly content with her incuriosity and that of her two brothers, too. They didn't want to explain that their ma-and-pa operation, Circus of Books in West Hollywood and Silverlake, made the bulk of its money from the sale and distribution of gay pornography.

Now Rachel has grown up to be a filmmaker and her camera is present for the closing of Circus of Books' last location in West Hollywood in February 2019, as 21st century innovations made the business irrelevant as both porn shop and cruising spot. But what's fascinating about Circus of Books, her affectionate if thinly realized documentary, is how little her parents saw themselves as important fixtures of the gay community for 30 years. Their customers and employees may have seen the bookstore as a safe space and a refuge where they could be themselves, but the Masons saw it as a business. They were not moving VHS copies of the latest from porn superstar Jeff Stryker. They were selling widgets.

It's hard to believe that such cognitive dissonance would be possible, but for the Masons, Karen especially, it was an absolute necessity. Where her husband was known as a passive, happy-go-lucky type — if he was lost at the mall, Rachel jokes, they could tell strangers to "look for the bald guy with the smile on his face" — Karen was raised a conservative Jew and her instinct was to compartmentalize the business. She and Barry were committed to maintaining a conventional, heteronormative environment for their children, and the culture and controversies that surrounded the bookstore were like another world away.

Circus of Books heads down multiple tracks at once: It's a first-person documentary about a family coming to terms with the peculiarities of its past. It's a brief history of the LGBTQ community in Los Angeles, and the times it was under siege by the AIDS crisis and Reagan-era obscenity laws. It's a lament for a gay culture that has traded interpersonal connection for the virtual ease of internet porn and hook-up apps like Grindr. And yet every aspect of this story feels undernourished, a once-over-lightly treatment of subjects that cry out for a deeper interrogation. It doesn't go far enough beyond its feel-good hook about a ma-and-pa porn shop, despite ample opportunities to do so.

One possible problem is that Karen Mason appears as if she'd rather not be bothered. It becomes a kind of running joke, established in early home videos, that she doesn't like to be on any of the cameras her daughter has toted around since childhood. Yet she's the one source of familial conflict in Circus of Books, because her husband Barry doesn't hold himself to any religious dogma and has a non-judgmental attitude that's applied to all aspects of his life. For Karen, the practical challenges of running the bookstore allowed her to mask her latent homophobia, which would finally come out in an ugly way when one of her sons came out in college.

Though there's a happy ending to this subplot, the director isn't able to evoke this family reckoning as powerfully as she could, perhaps because her mother is so good as deflecting questions and sinking into the day-to-day labors of winnowing the archives and shutting down the business. The film also misses the dramatic punch of the bookstore going to war with Ed Meese and the obscenity police, which tries to prosecute Barry after a sting operation involving the mailing of three videotapes to a fake video store across state lines. An operation like Circus of Books faced harassment and existential threats from Moral-Majority types, but the complexities of that fight are never fully explored, despite having free-speech warriors like Larry Flynt as talking heads.

"It's the parents' role to fight for change and the kids' role to have as normal a life as possible," says Karen late in the film, and Circus of Books plays like the product of normalcy. All the fights have been settled by the time the film begins, so it's more about putting various aspects of the story into well-labeled boxes and closing up shop. The sense of closure is satisfying, but it's missing a charge.