Film Review: Circus of Books

Note: Film 26 of the 365 film challenge.

This is a really fascinating and personal documentary, in which filmmaker Rachel Mason tells the story of her parents, Karen and Barry, who ran the adult bookstore that gives the film it’s title. Through the AIDS epidemic, the Reagan’s governments conservative crackdown and developments within their family, this is interesting in that it features Rachel seeing new sides of her parents’ life and recounts how she and her brothers became aware of what their parents did.


The store is going out of business, the internet having hit the business hard and Rachel films Karen and Barry as they prepare to move onto the next chapter of their life. On the bigger picture it reflects the changes in gay culture and the pornography industry, and the challenges both have faced over the last few decades.

Karen and Barry are fascinating people, and it shows the weird path their lives took. It also captures the struggle that Karen in particularly experiences reconciling how she makes her money with her conservative Jewish background. She seems rather uncomfortable with the things she sells and with being on camera, and there’s an extremely heartbreaking sequence as Rachel interviews her younger brother Josh about his sexuality and coming out as gay. It shows how Karen struggled with it, but always loved her son, and through reflection became more accepting and actually helps other families to accept and understand their children’s sexuality and identity.

The fact the film is made by a family member just increases the poignancy of it all, we witness Rachel wonder why Josh, even if worried about his parents’ reaction couldn’t talk to her about it, her realising just how difficult it was for him to come out and them sharing this all in an open, honest way that makes them have to verbalise previously unspoken feelings.

Similarly, a section where Barry talks about employees and acquaintances passing away from AIDS is heartbreaking and the cheery, laid back old man shows the closest he gets to anger as he talks about a mother refusing to come and see her dying son.

It manages to mine these serious subjects while also being a warm and, in places, fun film. A unique family story, of how the Masons became part of the gay community and how their bookstore helped generations of gay men discover themselves and meet others like them.

There’s also an appearance from Ru Paul’s Drag Race star Alaska, who previously worked at the store.


Utterly captivating, moving and important. With an optimistic ending, even as the shop closes. Check it out. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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