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Rachel Mason grew up believing that her parents ran a small bookstore in Los Angeles. She wasn’t entirely mistaken, although the naive young woman — then an artsy teen, now a documentary filmmaker — never imagined that, as her mother Karen bluntly tells her on camera, “at one point, we were probably the biggest distributor of hardcore gay films in the United States.” Named for the now-defunct SoCal fixture, “Circus of Books” is an affectionate look at one of the most unusual mom and pop businesses in America, directed by the person who knew Mom and Pop best.
As such, it’s no great surprise that Rachel (who puts herself on screen up front) focuses on Karen and Barry Mason, the straight, middle-class California couple who established and operated the shop, rather than what such an establishment meant to L.A.’s gay population at the time. Mixed among the vintage home-movie footage and fresh interviews with individual family members, Mason offers a reasonable amount of Los Angeles’ LGBT history, touching on the historic New Year’s Eve police raid of the Black Cat Tavern (and subsequent gay rights protests, which predated the Stonewall riots by more than two years), the AIDS crisis and the impact of online porn and Grindr-style hookup apps on gay cruising culture. Still, she downplays — and doesn’t seem to fully understand — the full significanceof an institution like Circus of Books.
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Here was a store that sold magazines and printed matter out front, but boasted a bigger “back room” that customers could access via a pair of swinging doors, opening onto row upon row of hardcore gay videos, sex toys and so on. Locals would visit at all hours intending to buy or rent a movie, and if they were lucky,...
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