On the outside, Karen and Barry Mason are two straighter-than-straight, fine, upstanding Jewish parents raising their two kids in 1980’s San Francisco. Yet, behind their blanket response of “we own a bookstore” lies is a very different kind of truth. In answering publisher Larry Flynt‘s newspaper ad to distribute Hustler magazine, the Masons would go onto to unwittingly become the largest stockists and vendors of Gay pornography in America…
…by documenting her family, it’s fair to say that Rachel Mason has inadvertently documented a revolution.
Taking its name from the bookstore that it documents, Karen and Barry’s daughter Rachel has delivered a truly affecting and unpresumptuous portrait of two people on top of a seismically-charged faultline. By selling products, which at the time were illegal, expensive and very profitable, combined with their drift from being vendors to producers, the Masons became the epicentre of gay life for many in San Francisco. Seeing their work as “small, human kindnesses”, the masons would lead their lives in secret, whilst their pornographic video sales put their kids through college.
Ok. So far, so sasparilla.
However, with male homosexuality very much in the crosshairs of incumbent president Ronald Reagan’s drive against “immorality”, it would not be long before the authorities would start to single out Circus of Books. Caught in a deliberate sting operation, the Masons narrowly escape full prosecution, only to later become witnesses to the racing death toll that was the AIDS epidemic, all of which sets them up for a much later revelation, one which would challenge Karen to reexamine both her faith and her commitment to the bookstore.
A soulful, if slight witness to a community’s coming of age as seen from a unique vantage point, ‘Circus of Books’ is still an absorbing and tender documentary. Where matriarchal Karen now acknowledges that “parents only get to be smart for a small window of time”, her daughter Rachel’s documentary can now offer a perspective that previously escaped her parents.
In short, ‘Circus of Books’ is that surprisingly fantastic kind of documentary, that steals you away by the very nature of its unclear purpose. In documenting her family, it’s fair to say that Rachel Mason has inadvertently documented a revolution.