“You don’t have the luxury of not earning a living.”
Revolving around an often discounted and misunderstood industry, Rachel Mason’s Circus of Books is a remarkably frank and equally unapologetic look at how two unexpected entrepreneurs joined forces with a somewhat scorned community to generate a beacon of light in a time of relentless struggle.
Circus of Books is a simple, straight forward story about a pair of business owners who saw an opportunity and road the rugged terrain to the very end. Refusing to completely adapt and migrate to the workings of the internet, they became lost in the shuffle, drowned out by the plethora of online downloads, app conversations, and the overall growing acceptance for the once damned community.
Fortunately for Rachel Mason, her film merely uses the bookstore as a backdrop for the people who ran it.
Mason’s take on the highly regarded couple is more personal than many would expect. Her parents, Barry and Karen Mason, took over the financially struggling establishment, switched around a few words, and effectively created a landmark store that allowed people in the gay community to explore their sexual freedom during the traumatic era of the AIDS epidemic. It was a gutsy move, one taken more out of necessity than preference. However, it began a story that is equal parts wholesome and mind-blowing.
Never in a million years could Mason have wished for such material. Though her mom repeatedly questions what she is hoping to capture with her cameras rolling non-stop, those watching on, witnessing the final product, understand things clearly. Karen just hasn’t realized how empowering her story is.
Entirely unaware of what her parents did for work growing up, our director refuses to hide behind an invisibility cloak, putting herself front and center as she works to better understand her family and her childhood. The result is nothing short of stellar. The story, on the surface finite in its reach, expands organically as we begin to put the pieces together, slowing creating a more substantial understanding of our leading players.
As we navigate their unique journey and discover details surrounding an FBI sting, the back alley cruising, and the almost second life the owners lead outside of the shop, you can’t help but feel connected to them.
When we begin to dig into the film’s third act and learn of their own family’s experience with the gay world, outside of the bookstore, their humanity becomes even more apparent. What began as a film about a small bookstore in the heart of West Hollywood suddenly turns into one of hope, joy, and celebration.
It’s a unique feat, to begin as one thing and end as something much bigger. But even as we watch the doors close to the beloved bookstore, you can’t help but love and respect those who helped create this genuinely iconic story. Simple in nature but complicated in heart and emotion, Circus of Books captures the raw character arcs and gives us, even for a quick moment, the aspiration to have an equal effect on others that Barry and Karen unknowingly had on so many.