‘Circus of Books’ Review: A Community Takes Pride in Its Porn Store


Internet killed the video store in the documentary “Circus of Books,” which examines the history of a long-running porn shop and adult goods store in West Hollywood that closed in 2019. When the film begins, Circus of Books is on its last legs. But 30 years ago, it was not only one of the biggest distributors of gay pornography in the area, but also one of largest gay porn producers in the country. Perhaps the most surprising piece of the story was that it was run by Karen and Barry Mason — a straight couple who kept it a secret from their synagogue, friends and family.

The documentary (streaming on Netflix) is directed by the couple’s daughter, Rachel, and it promises an inside view of the pair’s double life. But as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the people who are least equipped to thoroughly profile Karen and Barry are their children. The family business went undiscussed at home for years; even though the curtain has since been drawn, Karen and Barry still compartmentalize. They are strictly business when they discuss their most impossible decisions, even shrugging off the choice — presented as Karen’s to make — to have only Barry face the charges brought against them during the Reagan administration’s crusades against obscenity.

But the film blossoms when it focuses on interviews with employees, longtime customers and the stars of the porn the store financed. These members of the community reflect on a bygone era with wit and warmth, and the film supports their memories with golden-lit archival footage of the neighborhood in the 1980s. It also grounds the store in its political history, including the devastation of the AIDS crisis. The remembrances are the movie’s heart — not a family secret, but a community’s pride.

Circus of Books

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. Watch on Netflix.



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