Released: 23rd April
Seen: 23rd April
In 1960 at 8230 Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, a little bookstore named Book Circus opened up. Loaded with hardcore gay pornography, the store managed to keep the doors open until 1982 when Barry Mason found out that the store was in trouble and wound up buying it. One brief name change later and the little porno store owned by a cocaine addict would turn into the mom and pop shop Circus of Books, still dealing in gay pornography and run by a former special effects engineer and a heavily religious journalist. It would become one of the most important hotspots in gay culture and would be there for a lot of essential moments in queer history. This documentary tells that story through the eyes of the daughter of Barry and his wife Karen and it tells it beautifully.
The history of Circus of Books is genuinely fascinating and touches on several major events, from the obscenity laws that turned distributing pornography (you know, that thing you could open in another tab right now without even thinking about it) into a federal crime to the start of gay liberation and through the horror that was the AIDS crisis. Circus of Books was there through it all, offering employment and a gathering spot for gay men who, at that time, needed both. Watching this history being explored is truly fascinating and interviews with people from legendary magazine owner Larry Flynt to iconic pornography icon Jeff Stryker help to explore just how dangerous yet important this medium was. Say what you will about pornography, this documentary goes to great lengths to point out that it was an essential part of the LGBT experience back then since it was the only way LGBT people got to see themselves on screen.
The best moments of the documentary are the interviews with the Mason family, specifically any time they show the director handling the interview. The thing that almost gives this film an innocent wholesome feeling is that it’s directed by the daughter of Barry and Karen who has several moments where you can see her reacting to things she’s learning. When they break away for her to laugh or you hear her shock, it’s genuine. The most heartbreaking moment comes when she just can’t keep doing a certain interview because of some information comes out. This film isn’t clinical, it’s personal and that gives it a warmth and charm that almost makes you forget that we keep seeing dildos and cock rings pop up. It’s just a mom and pop shop of a very different nature.
One of the key things this film does is preserve this little slice of history, a stand in for all the gay sex shops that have been sent out of business with the rise of the internet. It shows how essential these little buildings were and how they actually ended up helping the communities that frequented them. It dispels the image of this seedy little porn store with people in coats and shows clearly what its purpose was and the good that was done by having it there. Of all the porno documentaries I’ve seen (Inside Deep Throat, Porn Star: The Legend Of Ron Jeremy, Wadd: The Life & Times of John C. Holmes, etc.) this film is probably the one porno-related documentary you could watch with other people without getting too awkward. It’s just so wholesome, the sweetness and honesty that’s on full display is just endlessly watchable.
Not only does this film give us a great bit of history on this landmark, but we really get to know the family and just how owning this bookstore impacted their lives. There’s a pretty good reveal near the end (it’s the moment that had the director unable to keep doing an interview) and getting to see the complexity of this family having to come to terms with something happening in their home that they thought was going to stay at work is fascinating and touching. It’s just another layer that makes this film stand out among similar documentaries.
The store Circus of Books is closed now, it’s been changed into a boutique called Circus and is owned by porn director and drag queen Chi Chi LaRue, but now we have this record of a little piece of history. A business that got swallowed up thanks to the rise of the internet, it’s a fond farewell to something important we will never see again and it’s just flat out charming… yes, I’m still talking about the store that sells cock rings and dildos, this film makes you sentimental and I love it for that.