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Circus of Books: Netflix’s gay porn bookstore documentary dubbed ‘uplifting’ and ‘tender’

Documentary, executive produced by Ryan Murphy, tells the story of an elderly Jewish couple who ran a gay porn store for more than 40 years

Adam White
Thursday 23 April 2020 16:09 BST
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Circus of Books trailer

A Netflix documentary about an elderly Jewish couple who ran a gay pornography bookstore in Los Angeles has earned rave reviews from audiences and critics.

Circus of Books tells the story of Karen and Barry Mason, proprietors of the store of the title. They began selling pornography in 1982 after answering a call from the prolific pornographer Larry Flynt, who needed distributors for the magazines he owned. The Masons expanded their business from there, selling an array of gay pornography and sex toys, all the while keeping the truth of the bookstore a secret from friends and family.

Over the years, Circus of Books became a community hub for queer Californians, and was targeted by the FBI when Ronald Reagan’s presidential administration cracked down on “obscenity” and the distribution of gay pornography amid the AIDS epidemic. It closed in early 2019.

Critics and viewers have been won over by the film, which was executive produced by Ryan Murphy (Pose, American Horror Story), and directed by Rachel Mason, daughter of the store’s owners.

Circus of Books is a very beautiful documentary that explores not only LGBT+ porn scene but also the internal struggle of acceptance of a traditional Jewish family,” wrote one viewer. “It never ceases to amaze me how complex humans are.”

Another added that the documentary serves as a “queer palate cleanser after Tiger King”, writing: “Circus of Books is generous, unflinching, and all about people who are genuinely good and non-judgmental (though flawed at times).”

The Guardian, meanwhile, praised the film as bearing “enormous humour and tenderness”. IndieWire favourably compared it to Sarah Polley’s award-winning 2012 documentary Stories We Tell, calling it “the best LGBTQ documentary of the year”.

The Evening Standard called the film “upbeat”, “poignant and profoundly strange”, Under the Radar dubbed it “uplifting”, while the New York Times noted the film’s celebration of the visitors and shoppers who came to see the store as a lighthouse.

“These members of the community reflect on a bygone era with wit and warmth,” critic Teo Bugbee writes. “The remembrances are the movie’s heart — not a family secret, but a community’s pride.”

Circus of Books is available on Netflix now.

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