Former Circus of Books clerk and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” alum Alaska said at the beginning of the documentary, “I thought it was just a bookstore with a circus theme.” He follows this with, “[It was filled with] just porn. P-O-R-N.” However, newly-released-on-Netflix feature film “Circus of Books” isn’t as risque as you would expect from a feature on an adult bookstore—that at one point became the biggest gay porn distributor in the U.S.—to be. Director and screenwriter Rachel Mason’s debut is a tribute to her parents, the store’s unlikely owners, in the three decades that their bookstore served the gay community.
Karen and Barry Mason didn’t set out to make Circus of Books the “center of the gay universe” but simply regarded the business as a way of supporting their family. Karen was a stern and pious Jewish woman who had a journalism background with a specialty in criminal law. Barry handled special effects technology and worked under Linwood Dunn for “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Star Trek.” He was able to use his expertise to improve dialysis equipment which the couple manufactured before they ventured into porn.
Rachel Mason had a good story in her hands that perhaps would have been better in the hands of someone who wasn’t personally attached to it. But perhaps this narrative wouldn’t have been made otherwise, judging from the reluctance of her mother to be on camera. Mason chose to highlight how the pair kept the nature of the business from their three kids and friends. “Everything about the business was really in support of the family, ironically,” Josh, the youngest of the Masons, said. “The ‘gay’ part of it fell on the ‘business’ side of that mental dividing line.” Later in the documentary, it’s revealed how this compartmentalization comes into play in a family conflict. While waiting for the penny to drop, we are treated to a glimpse of the early days of gay pornography production and distribution. We got to hear straight from legendary porn star Jeff Stryker and porn magazine publisher Larry Flynt. For the store’s regulars, Circus of Books wasn’t just a cruising joint but a haven for the gay community.
The documentary touched on First Amendment civil-rights liberties as it featured the Reagan-era crackdown on “obscenity.” Flynt had a number of high-profile legal battles and Barry Mason nearly faced jail time. It also briefly tackled the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and how it affected the porn industry. The store had employees who passed away from illness and the degree of separation that Karen and Barry kept showed how they were outsiders living in the world of gay men.
But the meat of the film is in the family drama above all else. The latter part of the documentary focused on Karen Mason’s journey of re-educating herself so she could come to terms with her son’s sexuality and her religious beliefs. We see her sharing her initial negative reaction to her son’s coming out as a PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) group facilitator.
It’s a good watch for a Filipino audience. According to a Pew Research Center survey, the Philippines is the most tolerant towards homosexuality compared to the other highly religious countries. Filipino activists have pointed out that acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in the country is conditional, with gay people only largely celebrated when they work in comedy.
Young members of the LGBTQ+ community could also benefit from watching this documentary as it sheds light on the issue of diminishing queer places. The age of the internet allowed the community to stop hiding itself, but it came at the cost of allowing claimed spaces to die down and a loss of face-to-face community building.
“Circus of Books” is available on Netflix. Watch the trailer below.