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'Circus of Books' Review: A fun and heartfelt look at a gay porn shop

Movie Reviews

‘Circus of Books’ Review: A fun and heartfelt look at a gay porn shop

‘Circus of Books’ looks at how a gay bookstore brought a family together.

Has there been any industry that has changed more in the past few decades than pornography? From being a not so well kept secret in the 1970s and 1980s to becoming almost acceptable in the 1990s, porno reached unimaginable heights. At its peak, some stars were even household names. The advent of the internet has seen a boom in porn, but ironically, the death of the porno star.

Circus of Books is a Netflix documentary that looks at the bookstore of the same name. Karen and Barry Mason were a seemingly typical married couple. They lived in the suburbs and had three children. The store survived many hardships until the internet made it obsolete. Little did friends of the family know that store was a gay porn shop.

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The documentary touches on many subjects. The most interesting aspect of Circus of Books is the history of the store. The location gained fame over the years. Through the government crackdowns during the Reagan era and the onslaught of AIDS, the store survived and even thrived. This was thanks to the adaptability of the couple. The Masons started off selling Hustler magazine and became the largest producers of hardcore gay porn. It is a perverted version of the American Dream.

The Masons are very interesting. They are not your typical purveyors of smut. As gay porn actor Jeff Stryker puts its, they “understood supply and demand”. They are also very candid about their business and speak openly about how things have changed. Their views on homosexuality are certainly surprising. There is also a great scene that sees Karen order merchandise for the store. The two are business people through and through.

They are also incredibly charming and entertaining. Of the many interviewees, many comment how Karen is the head of the household. This comes through when the two are on camera together. It is never argumentative or a passive aggressive battle. They are a typical cute long married couple that understands the dynamics of their relationship.

When Circus of Books addresses other issues, it tends to lose its way. The film was directed by Rachel, the only daughter of the family. The movie opens with home movie footage. Apparently, this may have been the tone she was aiming for. This does not work all the time and gives the doc an uneven feel. It goes from informational talking heads to Rachel clumsily asking questions about the number of deaths in the gay porn industry. It is jolting for the viewer.

'Circus of Books' Review: A fun and heartfelt look at a gay porn shop

Rachel is able to right the ship towards the end. At this point, Circus of Books is less about the store and more about the family. It ties in with the rest of the documentary (Karen’s views on religion, family, and homosexuality are revisited). There is a rushed feeling over the last few minutes, but it is a fitting conclusion to the family’s tale.

Circus of Books is a wide ranging documentary. The Netflix offering touches on how the porn industry and gay community. More specifically it focuses on how the way both are looked at has change since the 1970s. It also looks at family and religion. Its constant changes in style and topics can be a little odd at times, but it is an overall enjoyable experience. 

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