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Netflix 2: “Circus of Books”

If I had cancelled my Netflix subscription because of “365 Days”, as some people threatened, I would have missed “Circus of Books”, a documentary that records the history of a Los Angeles bookstore for the gay community. Its owners were a straight, conservative Jewish couple with three children. The film was made by the couple’s daughter and gives her personal take on growing up under these circumstances.

Inheriting a Porn Shop

Karen and Barry Mason didn’t set out to run a hardcore gay porn shop; it simply fell into their hands after the failure of another business venture that left them without an income. Fortunately, Karen Mason had been a journalist and among others, had interviewed Larry Flynt of Hustler fame. In the early 1980s, Flynt needed distributors for a magazine. The Masons volunteered for purely financial reasons. Little by little, their small venture became a bookstore with magazines, books, and paraphernalia. Additionally, they branched out into making and distributing films.

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

These activities, however, went against their conservative Jewish beliefs. Kids, family, and appearances meant everything to the Mason parents. They hid their business from their friends, synagogue, and kids as best they could – especially because they didn’t want their children stigmatized. The kids had only a hazy idea of what their parents really did.

War On Smut

Karen and Barry Mason started their shop in an age with draconian anti-gay and pornography laws. Ronald Reagan was President; he wanted to wipe out “smut”. Towards the end of his tenure, the FBI ran a sting against the Circus of Books, resulting in a major lawsuit against the Masons. One or both of them could have landed in jail for 20 years. Fortunately, Reagan was succeeded in office by Bill Clinton, and the lawsuit became moot.

AIDS

As one would expect, the Circus of Books was a witness to the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s. Many friends and employees of the Masons died; worse yet, many parents of these friends refused to visit them on their deathbeds. (Ironically, in the current pandemic, people are dying in the hospital and their relatives would love to visit them but can’t.)

The Circle Comes Round

It turned out that one of Karen and Barry’s sons is gay. He didn’t come out to his parents until he was far away at college, and only on the last evening of one of his visits. Expecting the worst, he had already purchased his return plane ticket. Though he was worried his dad would have the most problems with his gay identity, it was his mother who didn’t deal with the revelation well. Although always the driving force behind the bookstore, her conservative Jewish upbringing had inculcated the belief that homosexual behavior was wicked. She had no qualms about others being gay, but her son? This is one of the film’s most surprising twists, and it’s not immediately clear what trajectory the mother-son relationship will take.

PFLAG

Karen went through much soul-searching. She took Torah study classes to dissect the old-testament injunction against gay sex. Although the film leaves us in the dark longer than necessary, Karen came to completely accept her son. She also got involved in PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and became an active facilitator and counselor for others. The last scenes, fittingly, show Karen Mason prominently participating in a PFLAG parade on Santa Monica Blvd. that passes by what had once been the Circus of Books.