The Reel Review
In 1976, Karen and Barry Mason, desperate to find a way to support their young family, answered an ad in the Los Angeles Times to become a distributor for Larry Flynt’s Hustler magazine. Little did they realize it would lead to owning a gay bookstore that would become the epicenter of L.A. gay culture, and in its heyday, America’s largest distributor of gay porn movies. This Netflix documentary is their incredible story.
Written and directed by their daughter Rachel, Circus of Books ambitiously skims the surface of A LOT of topics during its brief hour and a half runtime – a little local gay rights history, some insightful pre-bookstore history of her parents, the couple’s efforts to keep their business a secret even from their own children, Karen’s conflict between being devoutly religious and a porn peddler, battles with Reagan-era anti-porn crusaders, and son Josh’s heartbreak over momma Karen’s initially disappointing reaction to his coming out.
Still, the endearingly straightforward production, featuring family home videos and interviews with Larry Flynt, gay porn icon Jeff Stryker and former store employee/RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars winner Alaska Thunderfuck, manages to pay homage to a bygone era in gay history. Watching Karen shop for sex toys and anal lube – with clove oil – is priceless. But jokes aside, during the 1980s and early 90s, Circus of Books was a revered safe space for gay men to shop, cruise and hook up, prior to the advent of the internet. The film ends up being a really sweet love letter both to the owners and queer history, even if the former still may not quite grasp their significance to the latter.
• The Circus of Books store in West Hollywood closed in February 2019 and is now an upscale gay adult bookstore, Chi Chi Larue’s Circus. The Silver Lake location, which closed in August 2016, is now a marijuana dispensary.
• Barry and Karen Mason remain active members of Los Angeles PFLAG.
• Circus of Books premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2019.