Being stuck in quarantine has meant I have lots of free time on my hands and what better way to spend it than on Netflix! When Circus of Books showed up in my recommended list, I didn’t know what to make of it. The cover photo of an elderly couple sitting side-by-side on a couch didn’t quite match the flashing images of pornography in the trailer. I was intrigued.
A Successful Business
Circus of Books is a documentary about Karen and Barry Mason, a heterosexual Jewish couple who owned Circus of Books—a Los Angeles bookstore with multiple locations that carried and distributed a wide range of gay pornography—for over 30 years. Circus of Books explains how the Masons purchased the then-named Book Circus as a business opportunity. (She had been a journalist, and he had worked as an inventor and in television production). They then moved on to producing gay porn videos. And they were successful.
Through it all, they were able to compartmentalize their work at the store from their family, friends and religious community. The Masons did not discuss their business much, and all three of their children grew up believing their parents owned a simple bookstore. Karen in particular struggled to balance her business ventures with her religious beliefs. (The family belonged to a conservative synagogue although Karen was a lot more observant than her husband.)
While Karen and Barry were supportive of their staff and customers, most of whom identified as LGBTQ, things were different when one of their sons came out to them as gay while home from college. Karen especially was forced to do a lot of self-examination about her biases. “I was fine working with gay people,” explains Karen. “But when it came to my own family and what I had absorbed in the religion, I was not fine at all. When it came to my own son, I realized that I had some thoughts about gay people that needed to change.” After a lot of reflection and reaching out to an organization called Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) for support, Karen came to challenge her biases.
Allies and Advocates
Karen and Barry eventually became strong LGBTQ allies and advocates and now work to erase social stigma, negative stereotypes and prejudice around queerness via their involvement with PFLAG. In the documentary, when asked about his relationship with his parents since coming out, Josh Mason says, “I think at some point Mom said that it’s the parent’s role to fight for change, and it’s the kid’s role to have as normal a life as possible and just get on with things.”
Ultimately, Karen and Barry Mason are a great example of an everyday couple who just happen to have owned a sometimes-secret, once-successful shop specializing in gay porn. Karen’s quest to better understand and challenge her homophobic views brings the documentary to life.
Circus of Books does a good job of showing why it’s important not to judge a book by its cover.
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