Circus of Books



An unexpectedly engaging portrait of a family with links to gay pornography


Circus of Books
Rachel Mason in West Hollywood


To describe Rachel Mason's first full-length feature as a home movie goes directly to the heart of what gives it its very special appeal. Circus of Books is about her family and in particular about her parents, Karen and Barry, and her brother, Josh, and, because she is the filmmaker and the one who interviews the three of them on camera, they are all quite wonderfully at ease (her other brother, Micah, also appears but more briefly). The Masons see themselves as a close-knit family conventional in their warm attachment to each other, and, if that were the full story, the informal, relaxed atmosphere might well be unsurprising. However, for over twenty years the parents were engaged in a business undertaken in order to support their growing children and for good reason this was never discussed with them in any detail. The fact was that the bookshop which they were running, 'Circus of Books' as it was called, was located on Santa Monica Boulevard, a noted gay area of Los Angeles and the store became in time the biggest distributor of gay pornography in America.


In spite of that, Carroll's film is a tribute to her family and as such it cuts across every expectation you might have about the character of a documentary centred on a sex shop of this kind. Before they entered into this business in 1982 to overcome financial problems, Karen who was Jewish and strongly religious had been a reporter whereas Barry, also Jewish but without religious faith, a notably genial man content to let his wife be the dominant partner, had been in the movie business skilled in special-effects. Their new line of work took off when the publisher of Hustler, Larry Flynt, was looking for new smaller distributors and the shop became known for the gay titles available there extending in time from magazines and videos to DVDs and even adult movies set up by the Masons themselves to add to their product. The famed porn star Jeff Stryker who appears in this film comments that the real novelty in this was that unlike so many involved in the trade the Masons were so reliable and trustworthy, nice people with whom to deal. 


The truth of the matter was that Karen as the leading light in the shop looked on it totally as a business matter without regard for the product but nevertheless felt real concern for her customers. The store could be seen as a place of welcome, a space where gay men could feel safe and could socialise, but the Masons in running it were at serious risk since this was the Reagan era and there were moves towards greater censorship and a campaign against pornography backed by religious groups. Charges of handling obscene material were a daily threat. But the Masons refused to be deterred and their commitment became even stronger when they became deeply sympathetic observers of the way in which so many of their customers fell victims to the Aids crisis. Although Circus of Books revolves around a book shop, the story of the Masons is also a film reflecting social change regarding sex and sexuality. It could readily be suggested that Karen and Barry Mason can be seen as being in advance of their time in accepting the full range of sexualities and gender variations and seeing porn as an understandable and natural interest. The anti-pornography movement which affected them in the 1980s is seen as seeking to demonise porn but Circus of Books sets out to do the reverse and to regard it as normal.


The history of the shop remains a feature right up to the end of the film but the second half of Circus of Books also moves into new territory. When one of the Mason sons, Josh, was at college he summoned up the courage to come out to his parents as gay and discovered to his surprise that his father was more accepting initially than was his mother. Despite her acquaintance with so many gay men, Karen Mason found it very difficult to adjust to the idea of having a son who was gay. Most coming out films tend to concentrate more on gay children rather than on their parents and this film is unusual in bringing out so honestly the way in which it took over a year before Karen could fully adjust and rethink her theology thus fitting together her strong religious beliefs and her liberal attitudes and enabling her to accept Josh's sexuality fully. That she has succeeded in this and has played a large role subsequently in a support group for parents and friends of lesbians and gays gives the film an upbeat ending which is all the more telling because the extent of her struggle to accept is not hidden. The film's two distinct aspects blend to make Circus of Books a very individual work and one that holds the attention throughout, but it is the tone and the personalities of the Mason family that make it truly memorable.




Featuring  Karen Mason, Barry Mason, Rachel Mason, Josh Mason, Micah Mason, Larry Flynt, Jeff Stryker, Alexei Romanoff, Ellen Winer, Freddie Bercovitz, Paulo Morillo, Phil Tarley, John Weston.


Dir Rachel Mason, Pro Adam Baran, Cynthia Childs, Camilla Hall, Rachel Mason and Kathryn Robson, Screenplay Rachel Mason and Kathryn Robson, Ph Gretchen Warthen, Ed Kathryn Robson, Music Colletti. 


FutureClown Productions-Netflix.
86 mins. USA. 2019. Rel: 22 April 2020. Available on Netflix. Cert. 18.