There are so many incredible parts to be discovered within “Circus of Books”, a documentary that tells an almost unbelievable story of Barry and Karen Mason, as told through the lens of their daughter, Rachel Mason. Given that “Circus of Books” is a documentary and not the usual fictional story, I won’t recap a full synopsis. Because this IS Queer history, I feel that it’s better to watch the documentary for yourself. No amount of words or descriptions could relay the vast amount of vintage footage, photos, personal accounts of events, and everything else that piece together to tell the story of “Circus of Books”. It’s an important documentary that even I did not know I needed to watch until afterwards.
The best part of this documentary is the actual story itself and its authenticity. “Circus of Books” is a true coming out story, told on a couple of fronts. First and foremost, it reveals Karen and Barry Mason’s 30 year history as not only the owners of Circus of Books, an iconic gay bookstore in West Hollywood, but that they were at one point the largest US distributor of gay hardcore pornography. And how they kept it all hidden from their family, friends, and even their kids! As “Circus of Books” digs into their story, including the Mason’s struggles with the FBI sting raid and a fight against the government over censorship of “obscene material”, it reveals an astonishing story that almost seems like it was written rather than lived. It’s clear that very few people truly knew everything that happened with their “job” – even the kids didn’t know till their teenage years! This documentary is thus their “coming out” story; telling the truth of their lives.
It’s equally a “coming out” story in that it reveals to many younger generations, and to those outside our community, all about the Queer communities’ turbulent and challenging history. Circus of Books was already an LA queer icon after events such as The Black Cat raids and the following demonstrations, yet I was unaware of even those events. The sections regarding the Mason’s struggle and fight over government censorship of “obscenities” under Reagan equally provided quite an eye-opening view of an age that even I am too young to know firsthand. Lastly, because it’s a documentary of their family, there’s actually another coming out story involved: their son Josh‘s actual coming out as being gay and the issues that created. Rachel was quite emotional at one point, commenting that it seems so odd that Josh felt his parents wouldn’t accept him even after they found out about the shop; it was even more telling how their mother, Karen, truly did have an issue accepting her son at first.
Specifically, I loved was the inclusion of all the vintage film footage. Not only is this footage processed beautifully (and now preserved in a digital format for future), but it is interwoven throughout the Mason’s history to show a very informational viewpoint of queer and gay life in LA during the 60’s and 70’s. I actually knew very little about The Black Cat raids and the demonstrations that followed. And if I was unaware, then how many others equally are unaware?Sadly, there are many of the younger generations of queer kids who are unaware of the world of cruising and the importance of bookstores like Circus of Books. (The documentary actually briefly addresses this even!)
The Jumpy Bits
I will freely admit that I am not the most knowledgable about documentaries and how they could or should be structured. But for all the beautiful and juicy moments and vintage recordings, I had an issue with the overall flow of “Circus of Books”. It’s not even an issue for most of the documentary; about halfway through things start skipping around a bit too much. It actually was more noticeable upon re-watch. Rachel starts to talk about the FBI raid and the following federal charges, giving us a tease and setting up tension when revealing that the kids and their friends knew nothing of what was happening legally.
But rather than continuing down that path, we jump suddenly to Rachel’s interview with Josh about his coming out (with a side bit about Rachel’s friend and former employee Fernando). And that is subsequently left hanging as we return back to the federal charges which finally get their conclusion, mixed in with a bit of historical footage against “obscene” materials. (We finally get the closure of Josh’s coming out to his parents – but after skipping yet again to the decline of the business.) On one hand I can understand wanting to balance the telling of different elements that occurred at similar times while also heightening the tension and suspense one can only imagine would come from facing federal charges. But I can’t ignore that there’s too much distraction during these short pauses – I feel it actually takes away what is intended.
While initially screened at a couple Queer Film Festivals, “Circus of Books” finally premiered to the world back in April on Netflix. Just in time for everyone to watch it during quarantine! However, this documentary is a must watch. The story is so unique and interwoven at times it’s hard to believe it’s all based on real events. Yet it also highlights and covers so many pivotal moments in LA and US Queer history. In short – watch this on Netflix before it leaves!
Queer Relevance of “Circus of Books”
Being a documentary, everything is based on actual events and queer history. “Circus of Books” was an actual bookstore and gay pornography shop in West Hollywood and Silver Lake, Los Angeles that operated since the 1960’s. Barry Mason and his wife, Karen, took over the shop in the early 80’s and built the small bookshop into one of the US’s largest distributors of gay porn! They’re friendly mom & pop shop provided a safe haven for the queer community to meet up, cruise, and feel welcome especially during height of the AIDS crisis. While the store and the Masons survived an FBI raid and federal obscenity prosecution, the store could not cope with the advent of online porn and online dating and finally shut their doors in Feb 2019.
“Circus of Books” is an icon and pillar of LA Queer community; their story is a piece of queer history and deserves to be told. Thankfully, their daughter Rachel Mason has captured it all in this powerful documentary that shows how relevant that small bookstore truly was to the Queer community.