Circus of Books: Review

As a journalist and a LBGT advocate, you often come across some unconventional stories. Thanks for that, Netflix. So, I’m scrolling through Netflix and I come across Circus of Books. Didn’t think much of it. Figured it was a documentary about a book store that was some sort of hidden gem. Hidden gem it was.

Circus of Books is about a traditional Jewish family of five who, for years, kept a secret, they owned a gay porn store. After reading the description, this is why I allowed Netflix to continue playing the documentary. You’re telling me that a traditional straight Jewish husband and wife started a porn shop that became a beacon for the gay community. Someone has to explain this to me so I watched. What made the doc even better was that one of the producers is Ryan Murphy and the director is their daughter.

Karen and Barry Mason were recent college graduates that were starting a family in Hollywood. A few years later, Barry came across the owner of what would ultimately become “Circus of Books.” “Circus of Books”, in its inception, was a safe haven for gays in West Hollywood in the 80’s. They could come in, meet new people and potential mates and….well, find porn. The fun times stopped in 2016, after 34 years. Here are some of my takeaways from the film.

First, I am a HUGE “Rupaul’s Drag Race” fan and I did not know that Alaska, season five participant and All Stars season two winner, worked at the store for a time. I was happy to see her face and her wigs in the background.

Second, for some reason, I remember seeing docs about 2 Live Crew and their fight for freedom of speech, but for some reason, never thought about freedom of speech and the porn industry. The documentary gives us an eye-opening look at what could have happened to Karen and Barry, well Barry really according to his wife, if caught selling their goods, which did happen.

What really started to intrigue me about this doc is the conflict with Karen. Karen is the more religious parent, and as we get to know her, you’ll find that she’s a bit cantankerous at times. We later learn that one of her children comes out as gay and Karen doesn’t take it well which bothered me. If I hadn’t gotten to know her throughout the doc, I would have felt a way about her accepting her workers and having a gay porn shop in general but having an issue with a gay child. Rachel, her daughter that is directing the doc, at one point asks her, “Why not give up religion altogether?” in relation to her having the conflict with accepting her child and her religion. Personally, I don’t like her answer but it’s what she believed and she came around eventually. In most cases, the father is the one out of sorts about the coming out but Barry was cool. Karen says earlier that he isn’t big on religion.

Religion, acceptance, Hustler Magazine and the Internet are just some of the topics covered in this documentary. Overall, it has a good flow, is shot well and gives a bunch of background information on a legendary establishment that meant more to people than just a place to consume obscene content.

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