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Netflix doc 'Circus of Books' shines a light on LGBTQ and American history

The documentary is centered on a straight-owned Los Angeles bookstore that was at one point the largest distributor of gay pornography in the country.
Image: The recently shuttered Circus of Books, on Santa Monica Boulevard in California.
The recently shuttered Circus of Books, on Santa Monica Boulevard in California.Courtesy of Netflix

LOS ANGELES - Karen and Barry Mason were an average couple living the 1980s Southern California dream — a humble home in West Hollywood, three healthy children, weekly services at a synagogue in the San Fernando Valley and a small business to call their own.

That business, unbeknownst to friends at barbecues and PTA meetings, was at one point the largest distributor of gay pornography in the country, and a cultural safe haven for the queer community amid the draconian moralism of the Reagan era.

Their oddball, deeply emotional family journey is at the heart of the new Netflix documentary "Circus of Books," which debuted April 22. Directed by the Masons' daughter Rachel Mason, the film explores the trials of the Mason tribe, who lived in fear of judgment from their God and their peers while also forging lasting bonds with the societal outcasts who frequented their bookstore and built a community against the odds.

"I'm the one who was the preservationist and the cultural member of the family," says Rachel Mason, an artist and a longtime member of the Los Angeles queer avant-garde scene. "There was always this untouched treasure chest of family footage in the house, and so many have told me that this story is really part of gay history."

The Masons took control of the recently shuttered Circus of Books, on Santa Monica Boulevard in the heart of West Hollywood, in 1982, when the AIDS crisis was ramping up and crackdowns on pornography and an emphasis on family values were pervasive. While Karen and Barry say they didn't especially revel in the sexual content they sold (Karen maintains she has never screened one of the adult films she stocked for decades), they formed strong attachments to their customer base and created a profitable business.

"What's interesting to me is to see the disappearance of the memory of the AIDS crisis," says Rachel Mason. "I talk to a lot of kids who don't actually know how bad this was. I had a perspective on this from childhood, and it was important for me to show that my parents were there for those people."

Matriarch Karen is the unwitting star of the doc, often staring directly into the camera and questioning who on Earth would care about such a story, as it mirrors that of so many other small businesses and their struggles to survive through the ages. One heavy hitter who cared was showrunner Ryan Murphy, who found Rachel through a documentary sales agent and attached himself to the project as an executive producer.

"When I met him, he told me, 'This store was really central to my experience as a gay man. Back then, there was nowhere to go,'" says Mason.

Some of the film's most wrenching moments come as Barry and Karen recall hundreds of young men, loyal customers, dying of AIDS in a matter of days. The couple gives accounts of reaching out to the family members of these men and informing them that the end was near, only to be told those children had been disowned, and not to call again.

"My mother is a religious person, and in those days shared the same views as what the Bible handed down. But her ultimate value is to always be a good mother. What happened to those men? Those were not good parents," says Mason.

Another compelling thread in "Circus of Books" is the coming-out story of Mason's younger brother, who had been sheltered from the culture of the bookstore and was terrified to walk the halls of L.A.'s Reseda High as a young gay man. Viewing the Masons through an entrepreneurial lens, the FBI subjected them to a sting operation for shipping adult material across state lines (a charge later forgiven by President Bill Clinton).

After decades of survival, Circus of Books shuttered in February. It's a bittersweet if not inevitable ending for the film, which in its closing moments captures the passage of gay culture -- and the majority of commerce -- from physical spaces to the internet.

"There are many different amazing historical codes from the gay community that are disappearing. There is a potent, powerful, sexy, awesome thing that happened in the clubs and the cruising scene and in the bookstore," says Mason. "I want to reach into the internet sometimes and shake these kids up, and it's my own generation. So we don't lose this culture."

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Reuters contributed.