Yogi’s Verdict: Circus of Books

A conservative heterosexual Jewish couple wouldn’t be out of place in a synagogue. But it certainly raises more than a few eyebrows when they are the owners of Los Angeles’ largest gay porn bookshop.

Karen and Barry Mason were that couple, when they took over the Circus of Books shop in West Hollywood, a historic area with a large concentration of LGBT related businesses and activities. The Masons’ humble store rose to become one of the largest distributors of gay porn in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s.

Rachel Mason chronicles her parents’ stewardship of Circus of Books in this Netflix documentary, highlighting the matter-of-fact manner in which Karen and Barry dealt with merchandise and customers. These are complemented with interviews with long-time business partners and employees (many of them gay themselves) who talk about the safe space that the shop was for vulnerable LGBT persons during a time when conservative attitudes dominated mainstream society.

“It allowed us to realise that you can live as an adult without following the path that everyone’s telling you need to follow.”

Fernando Aguilar, Former Employee

“No one has ever given us anything we haven’t had to fight for”

Alexei Romanoff, veteran LGBT activist

The Masons also open up about how they were forced to discard the dividing wall they had carefully built to shield their family from the business when their son Josh came out as gay to them in college. Karen, who had personally held conservative religious attitudes while selling hardcore gay porn, also recounts her reckoning with this dissonance and eventual involvement with LGBT advocacy.

Circus of Books finally closed in 2019 after years of declining sales from the advent of online porn and dating apps. But for decades, it served as a symbol of and repository for a marginalised community, as well as a business that put food on the table of an “all-American” family.

Yogi’s Verdict: ★★★★

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