Circus Of Books – Netflix Documentary Film Review

An Absorbing Documentary

The internet has made it easier than ever to access adult material. 3 of the top 11 websites on the entire world wide web are adult-orientated. Dating apps like Tinder and Grindr have completely revolutionized the way dating works and swept up in these changes is a far more accepting and worldwide community that stands together for movements like gay rights and equality. Only, it wasn’t always this way.

Back in the 1980’s, porn was big business but also illegal in some states across America. Film directors made a lot of money from professional adult movies and sex shops like Circus Of Books provided a community hub for like-minded individuals to come together and socialize. It seems almost alien now to imagine these brick and mortar stores, especially with the aforementioned digitalization of our world.

Circus Of Books is an intimate family portrait of a young, heterosexual Jewish couple that found themselves trying to make a living any way they can. What began with acquiring the rights to distribute Hustler magazine soon evolved into taking over a failing bookstore that just so happened to specialize in gay porn. Coming from a conservative background, Karen and husband Barry set out together to learn more about the business.

It’s a massive success too and what began as a simple venture soon became a prospering enterprise, allowing them to start making their own movies featuring Jeff Stryker.

While most of the film takes a celebratory stance toward the business and how prosperous things were for them both, there’s also an underlying sobering tone, one that touches on stigmas at the time and how the couple had to face adversity almost every step of the way. From Reagan’s anti-porn bill to Karen’s own feelings about her son coming out, all of this combines to give the film some great depth and an eye-opening look at the life of these two inspiring business owners.

There’s some pretty powerful imagery of pictures fading amidst the discussion around AID’s too and with daughter Rachel Mason filming the interviews with her family, there’s a lot of intimate details and poignant scenes that perfectly capture both tone and mood, allowing you to really become engrossed in the journey along the way.

The usual array of talking head segments are here, and plenty of archival shots too, but do be aware that there is some pretty graphic imagery right the way through the film. Seeing this juxtaposed against Karen’s conservative background is pretty ironic and she openly talks about this too at one point, always with a keen eye for moving the business forward and looking out for her employees. 

The final third of the film really hammers home what impact digitalization has had on our world and for businesses like Circus Of Books there just isn’t any way to compete against the big online giants. It’s certainly a sobering look at what this online revolution has done to the high street and we’re seeing this more every day as online businesses continue to thrive.

Overall though, Circus Of Books is a fascinating glimpse into the inception and subsequent closing of a 33 year journey this Jewish couple have taken. It’s a sobering look at how this community have had to go through hell just to become an accepted part of society, and it does so with Circus Of Books as a key part of this movement. Well written, emotional and engrossing throughout, this documentary film is well worth a watch.


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  • Verdict - 8/10

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