Circus of Books (and its predecessor name, Books Circus) was one of the oldest adult gay book stores in Los Angeles until it closed a few years ago, like many similar brick and mortar shops undercut by the e-tail economy. For the last 35 years of its existence, it was owned by Karen and Barry, a straight married couple, who sold magazines like Handjobs and even helped produce and distribute videos by adult porn actor Jeff Stryker… all the while hiding their livelihood from their three children.

Or that’s how the premise of Circus of Books, a new documentary available for streaming on Netflix starting Wednesday, initially poses the facts. The filmmaker, Rachel Mason, is the daughter of Karen and Barry, and professes total ignorance… except when schoolmates told her, and when her father was arrested for obscenity and a few other times that seem to screw up the narrative. 

That’s just the first of many disappointments in this film which, all due respect, doesn’t have much interesting to say. Mason wants to cast her parents as pioneers, but the facts get in the way sometimes. They saw a market, they filled it, and they hid that from everyone they could. Del and Phyllis they were not.

Over 90 minutes, Mason delves into gay rights in SoCal during the ’60s, which is useful context but has little to do with the Masons themselves. We get testimonials from quasi famous gays (like Drag Racer Alaska, a former employe, pictured) who talk about how central Circus of Books was to their coming-out process … testimonials that could be shared by thousands of folks over hundreds of cities during the last half-century. Nothing feels especially unique or new (though, granted, it may be informative to straight or younger gay audiences). We could just as easily have a documentary about Crossroads Market. (Somebody get on that, thanks.) So we are left with Mason’s clunky storytelling.

It’s a hindrance that Mason is the child of the subjects; too often, they snipe at each other like family does, which doesn’t seem charming or insightful but just unprofessional. There’s little dramatic thrust to her story;  it’s barely more than a costly home movie, and about as interesting to outsiders.

— Arnold Wayne Jones