CIRCUS OF BOOKS. Even owning a prominent gay-porn bookstore and social hub is, at the end of the day, just a job. So goes one object lesson from Rachel Mason's charming, heartfelt documentary Circus of Books. And she would know: Her decidedly unassuming parents Karen and Barry owned and operated the titular shop for more than 30 years. Along the way they also became producers and distributors of some prominent gentlemens' movie titles, were prosecuted by the federal government, saw many of their staff and customers perish in the AIDS epidemic and obscured the nature of their livelihood from their three children. Just another day — or third of a century — at the office.
The middle 1970s found the elder Masons seeking gainful employment. After Karen gave up the strain and horrors of news reporting in Ohio, and decamped to Southern California, she met Barry at a Jewish singles mixer. He, a University of California Los Angeles film school grad, had begun a career in special effects, but transitioned into medical appliances after inventing a failsafe sensor for dialysis machines. When malpractice insurance rates skyrocketed, though, the couple found themselves unemployed with a family to feed.
In the course of her previous career, Karen had at one point interviewed an up and coming publisher named Larry Flynt, so when she spotted a notice that his company was seeking distributors for a new magazine called Hustler (which the major news sellers refused to carry), she brought it to Barry as a stop-gap income opportunity. He did the due diligence, determined that they could easily pick up enough accounts to make the whole thing viable and the Mason family was in the smut business.
As time went on, Karen and Barry built themselves a reputation for honesty and transparency, attributes seemingly in short supply in the porn trade — who knew? — and were able to solidify and expand their business, eventually taking over a brick and mortar location in the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles in the early 1980s. Before long, they had added a second location and set up a movie production company, all (mostly) unbeknownst to their daughter and two sons. It was the American dream, bedecked with dildos. But, as has been the case with so many beautiful things, it couldn't survive the internet.
Rachel's movie introduces us to the Masons as they prepare to permanently shutter the store. It moves back through the decades, to an era when the business throve, even when beset by the "obscenity" obsessed Reagan and Bush administrations, and the cultural devastation of the AIDS epidemic. It then pulls in tighter on the family, examining the complexity of realizing, as an adolescent, that your quirky little parents own one of the most prominent porn shops and hook-up destinations in Southern California. Because Karen and Barry are transparent and effusive above all things, and because they are being interviewed by their own daughter, the barrier to entry here seems much lower than in most documentary settings. There are subjects Karen in particular doesn't relish — the scene in which she shops for sex-toy inventory while refusing to look at it conveys both business acumen and imposed innocence, to sweetly humorous effect — but the couple don't shy from any of the questions posed to them, at least on screen.
For as much as it gets right — and it's a long list — Circus of Books' main shortcoming is trying to take on so much in too little time. At a brisk 92 minutes, the narrative certainly never flags, rather leaving one with the feeling that sections could have been expanded for greater impact. All things considered, this is the best possible problem the movie could have and even if it suggests stories left untold, the document with which we are left is an intimate, composed and ultimately a hopeful one. NR. 92M. NETFLIX.
THE BOOKSELLERS. This, by contrast, feels like a work of atmosphere searching for a through-line. Like Circus of Books, it focuses on an industry decimated by the internet — antiquarian book dealers and collectors, in this case — and attempts to tie together too many disparate threads. But where Circus benefits from the proximity of its maker to her subject, The Booksellers feels frustratingly distant from its subject; its depth suffers for excessive breadth.
Directed and edited by D.W. Young, The Booksellers explores the multi-generational rare-book world of New York City, spending time inside dazzling private collections, multi-generational retail landmarks, fairs, auctions and the pages of manuscripts themselves. For a lover of books, the near-tactile experience of the thing is almost worth the price of admission but the deliciousness of the atmosphere can't quite transcend the unfocused nature of the narrative.
Maybe because it focuses on such a microscopic subculture, maybe because that subculture seems somewhat exclusionary in its rarification, The Booksellers seems to leave its subject unfairly unexamined. It's a fun tour of the collections, which is not to be underestimated, but the movie does little to contextualize or critically examine the little world in which it is set. NR. 99M. MINIPLEX STREAMING.
John J. Bennett is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase and prefers he/him pronouns.