North Bend FF Review: Step Into the Endearing ‘Circus of Books’

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Your parents may have embarrassed you throughout your childhood, but imagine living through the late 80s knowing they owned a gay porn store. Well that’s exactly what Rachel Mason lived through, and it’s not as embarrassing as you might think. Her parents, Karen and Barry, are the center of her new documentary, Circus of Books which shares the same name as the business, sees Mason tracing the history of the establishment, her relationship with her parents, and how the store played a role in the LGBTQ community of West Hollywood. 

The Masons are your typical middle class American family which makes their entry into the gay porn business all the more striking. Karen, a strong headed mother figure, and Barry, a happy-go-lucky father, are two peas in a pod. They are two personalities in their own right, but the addition of their occupation makes them all the more interesting. The dichotomy between the two is the draw, and after a while, you begin to realize the normal, level-headed nature of Karen and Barry — two people who were accepting of the LGBTQ community in the 80s long before it was common to do so — embodies a methodology of acceptance that is too pure and good for this world.

Their long running titular store is shown as a beacon of refuge for the LA gay scene for decades, positioning it as a place of cultural acceptance during a period when the AIDs epidemic made gay men pariahs. Not only that, but the Mason’s willingness to stay in business despite threats of federal prosecution shows their resilience in the face of social pressures. It’s funny to see two elderly citizens sell hardcore gay porn or buy dildos at a sex-industry convention, but when you realize the significance of what they’re doing and the positive impacts they’ve had, it’s heart-warming to say the least.

It should be noted though that this Netflix doc is 100% conventional. Talking heads from Mason family members to former employees offer testimonies about their experiences with the store and fill in the connective tissue between on-site and archival footage. It hits all the right notes in sync when you would expect it, so don’t go in expecting something like The Act of Killing or Thin Blue Line, but that also doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad. It’s supposedly slated for a Thanksgiving release, making it well suited for that ‘feel-good’ film to throw on post-dinner in a sort of ironic, subversive way.