Karen and Barry Mason never talked to their three children about the family business. If anyone asked, they were instructed to say their parents “ran a bookstore.” Which was true. But on the rare occasions the Mason kids accompanied their parents to their West Hollywood business, they were told to “look at the floor” as they walked through certain sections of the store.
The Netflix documentary “Circus of Books” takes its name from the Masons’ now-closed West Hollywood institution, which during the height of its business, Karen notes (it’s not a boast, she’s too modest) was “probably the biggest distributor of hardcore gay films in the United States.” The movie is the work of the Masons’ daughter, Rachel, as she attempts to understand how her middle-class, conservative parents, who met at a Jewish singles party in Woodland Hills, came to devote their lives to this particular line of work.
Rachel Mason performs a nice bit of misdirection with the film, starting with humorous juxtapositions of this nice, elderly Jewish couple running a gay porn shop and then moving toward a poignant story of acceptance. She doesn’t pry or dig too deep into her parents’ feelings about the material they sell or why they continued in the business for decades (“You don’t have the luxury of not earning a living,” Karen says). But their humanity shines through.
Karen Mason began her professional career as a journalist, pushing boundaries by writing about controversial subjects such as Hustler magazine founder Larry Flynt. Barry, described as someone whose “default state is happiness,” worked as a special-effects technician on “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the original “Star Trek” TV series, parlaying his technical knowledge into designing dialysis equipment.
But these ventures didn’t always pay the bills. Karen, pregnant with their first child, came across an ad in The Times from Flynt, looking for distributors. (“I was sleeping late,” Barry says. “I didn’t have anything to do until she woke me up with the ad.”) From that morning, the Masons would go on to have three children, regularly attend synagogue and make enough money selling hardcore gay porn that they could open up two bookstores, the flagship location in West Hollywood and another in Silver Lake.
Through looking at her parents’ store, Rachel Mason includes a brief history of Los Angeles’ LGBTQ community and Circus of Books’ place in it, touching on the 1967 New Year’s police raid of the Black Cat Tavern and subsequent gay rights protests, as well as the devastating effects of the AIDS crisis. There’s also a good dozen interviews with people talking about the store’s importance as a safe place where gay people could meet.
But “Circus of Books” is at its heart a family story, centering on the relationship between the forceful, opinionated Karen and her youngest son, Josh, who comes out as gay while in college. Karen wasn’t prepared to have a gay child, and it takes some time for her reconcile her religious beliefs with Josh’s sexual orientation.
“I made sure I had my flight booked and paid for because it wasn’t an impossible thought that I was going to get thrown out,” Josh says, a revelation that brings his sister to tears.
And while Karen’s talent for compartmentalization isn’t always fully explored, Rachel manages to confront her mother’s contradictions on this count, resulting in a powerful conclusion that reveals what may be her greatest legacy. If nothing else, the world will now know that she and her husband did a little something more than “run a bookstore.”
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Playing: Available April 22 on Netflix