Thami Kwazi
Lifestyle Print Editor
2 minute read
8 May 2020
2:18 pm

‘Circus of Books’ review: Courageous documentary offers insight into gay community

Thami Kwazi

The doccie also documents the couple’s children not being privy to the nature of their parents’ business.

Circus of Books. Picture: Netflix

The year is 1976 and Jewish couple Karen and Barry Mason run a bookstore called the Circus of Books, a highly profitable enterprise that sells gay porn and sex toys.

They acquired the store from someone who owed the landlord rent money due to his drug habit.

Barry, a former movie studio employee and inventor who’s fallen on hard times, takes over the running of the store and it becomes a cult success in the gay community.

On the surface, Karen is highly conservative and described as the one in the couple who wears the pants. She enjoys being in the synagogue praying, while Barry is all about business and not deeply spiritual. It’s a highly confusing and interesting dynamic.

The ’80s and ’90s were a period where the distribution of homosexual porn was illegal in America.

Karen and Barry Mason in ‘Circus of Books’. Picture: Netflix

Running the most successful gay porn store was viewed as part of the counter culture, in a climate where owning such a business could get you locked up in prison as a federal crime.

Written and directed by their daughter Rachel Mason, the Netflix doccie additionally documents the couple’s children not being privy to the nature of their parents’ business.

The couple escapes prison through the election of Bill Clinton and by using their first amendment right, part of which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech”.

Through the years, the store started to suffer financially because the customer base is ageing and porn is distributed through other channels which include the digital world.  The couple failed to adapt which eventually leads to the demise of their business.

As you watch the documentary, several events take place. The couple’s son, Josh, who had sworn he’d marry and had never visited their store, tells his story of coming out to his parents as gay on a post-it note that he places on the dining room table.

Rachel Mason in ‘Circus of Books’. Picture: Netflix

Karen doesn’t take the reveal too well but Barry describes his son’s confession as “not making a difference to him”.

A confession that Karen makes in the documentary is coming face-to-face with her internal prejudice towards homosexuality and having to fix the way she views things. She begins a theological struggle with what she’s been taught through religion, even joining a support group that helps her work through gender issues and helps her get comfortable with her son’s sexuality.

Karen even becomes a facilitator in the group, helping and encouraging other families with gender acceptance.

It is a courageous documentary offers insight that not many know or talk about.


Rating: ★★★★☆
Genre: Documentary
Streaming: Netflix

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