There’s something to be said about a film’s director having distance from its subject. Surely, at minimum, it allows them some “objective” perspective with which they can treat the material, carving out a narrative that is not only interesting to those involved in its creation but to those on the other side of the screen. Then there’s what we have with Rachel Mason and Circus of Books, the Tribeca-premiering documentary about the queer bookstore and porn shop her parents owned in West Hollywood. It’s her lack of distance from the subject — in fact, it’s that she, too, is part of the story — that makes the picture soar with intimacy. And it’s that familiarity that makes Circus of Books a worthy homage to the Los Angeles-area landmark of LGBTQ+ culture.
Rachel’s parents, Karen and Barry Mason, founded Circus of Books as Book Circus in the 1960s. This came well after an innovative medical device company they owned went under and they needed a source of income to hold them over. Responding to an ad in the Los Angeles Times, they found a temporary gig as an independent distributor for Larry Flynt, the famed publisher of explicit magazines, the most notable of which being Hustler. Eventually, Karen and Barry would become one of Flynt’s largest distributors as their mini adult empire flourished, including a hardcore porn production company at one point.
Meanwhile, back at home, Rachel, her siblings, and the family’s friends just thought the parents owned a bookstore. After all, knowing that the Masons were hocking Hand Job, Blueboy, Mandate, and Honcho magazines to send their kids to college might’ve disrupted their quaint Jewish upbringing.
Circus of Books tells this complex and enthralling story, about the rise and fall of their family business, with a unique specificity including family photos and video to accompany interviews with Karen and Barry and Rachel’s siblings. The doc also features interviews with former employees of the shop (including Justin Honard a.k.a. Alaska Thunderfuck), former pornstar Jeff Stryker, and Flynt himself. Local activist Alexei Romanoff, who is one of the last living survivors of the raid on the Black Cat Tavern on New Year’s Day 1967, is also included to provide cultural context about the importance of the store. (Which, for those who don’t know, the store became a popular cruising spot for the gays with its back alley being known as Vaseline Alley. Yikes! Come for the history lesson, stay for the guy explaining how he lost his virginity there.)
While there is much to chew on in this film, as it is without a doubt a necessary chronicling of LGBTQ+ history — even though mainly through the eyes of a straight couple who witnessed and participated in it in their own way — at its core, the doc is a family story. Hearing Rachel behind the camera bickering with her mother as parents and children do, or seeing her break down as one of her brothers explains why he was hesitant to come out as gay are the moments that elevate Circus of Books to that rarefied sweet spot of effective edutainment. It’s no wonder that Netflix already bought the rights to the Ryan Murphy-executive produced doc ahead of its Tribeca premiere.
Circus of Books’ other location, in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood closed on August 8, 2016. A weed dispensary is in its former space. The West Hollywood location closed earlier this year in February, providing a sad, yet appropriate ending to the film, all of which signals the changing times of LGBTQ+ life. Lucky for us, the doc will keep us informed of a world long gone.