This documentary is about the story of a family business which changed queer history for ever. But more specifically, it about an adult store in West Hollywood. Circus of Books takes us through the back stories of various characters involved in the rise and ultimate fall of the store. This includes an in depth look at the Mason family who ran the store as well as the tradespeople who furnished the store with its wares and even an interview with Jeff Stryker, a famous pornographic actor.
It wasn’t until Rachel Mason was a teenager that she discovered that what she had assumed was a quaint book shop her parents owned was in fact a gay porn and adult goods emporium – and that her strait-laced mum and dad were secretly one of the biggest producers of hardcore gay porn in the United States with titles like Rimnastics Gold (“It’s not just fantastic, it’s rimtastic!”) Now, she’s directed a tender, low-key documentary for Netflix, Circus Of Books, which tells the story of the titular store’s place at the epicentre of gay LA life, and attempts to untangle her complex family dynamic. NME
But this documentary goes far beyond the realm of smut. Karen Mason’s Jewish faith plays a fairly central role, the AIDS crisis is ongoing in the background, ever present, and the US Government were waging a war on pornography during Circus of Books’ hay day. Together, this 90 minute documentary covers a lot of ground and tells each story with a lot of heart and grit.
Matthew and I particularly enjoyed the apparition of Justin Honard (AKA Alaska Thunderf***), a former worker at the store and current favourite drag queen of ours. Hearing him speak about his time at the store with such fondness was a piece in the puzzle of what this store meant for the queer community. This was a meeting place for minds and other less noble but equally rewarding pursuits. This was a place where queer people could go and be themselves and not be judged by a hostile outside world. What Circus of Books stood for was far more than profit margins. I emplore you to watch this documentary to find out more about what I mean on this point.
Queer life isn’t easy. I use the word queer loosely of course. Many associate this word with sexuality or more specifically; sexual perversion. But I think that the modern queer community built on the success of our predecessors in redefining the word to include many more aspects, if not all aspects. But at the centre of my understanding of the word is the word “Other”. To be queer, for me, is to be “Other”. Queerness is not quite fitting in with the comfortable image of the man on the Clapham Omnibus, to use a legal aphorism. Circus of Books explores Otherness to an extent and highlights the key years in the struggle to normalise Otherness. For that I can only thank it and humbly await Netflix’s next documentary.