scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Spinning the classics with a record-collecting obsessive


It was an innocent question. One of Josh Rosenthal’s young daughters, already accustomed to her daddy’s odd habit of dragging the girls through cramped aisles in musty used-record stores, looked up at him as he flipped purposefully through the bins.

“How do you know what you’re looking for?” she wondered.

Come to think of it, as Rosenthal writes in his new book, “The Record Store of the Mind,” he’s spent his whole life figuring that out. It’s a peculiar ailment, this record collecting — the obsessive, never-ending search for the fringe artifacts of the 100-year-old recording industry. Only some of us are afflicted, but for those who are, Rosenthal’s self-published book is a 248-page sympathy card.


It’s also a long shopping list, a celebration of some of Rosenthal’s more esoteric favorites, some of which he has reissued on his San Francisco-based Tompkins Square label. Readers smitten with the collectors’ bug won’t be sure whether to thank him or curse him for his enthusiastic endorsement of so many hard-to-find records.

“I’ve heard that criticism,” he says with a laugh.

In “The Record Store of the Mind,” indie-label executive Josh Rosenthal reflects on a life spent collecting records.Handout

On Saturday, Rosenthal kicks off a three-week book-launch tour at the eclectic indie record store Deep Thoughts in Jamaica Plain. His appearance will include a set by Boston-based performer Sam Moss, who curated one of Tompkins Square’s influential “Imaginational Anthem” compilations of new and archival acoustic-guitar masters. The event marks both the third anniversary of Deep Thoughts and the (belated) 10th birthday of Tompkins Square.

Rosenthal, who attended high school on Long Island with Judd Apatow, had a good run in the 1990s working in promotion for Sony Music, at a time when the music industry was flush with profit. As the founder and proprietor of Tompkins Square, which he started in New York City before moving west a few years ago, he traffics in the kind of lovingly produced micro-genre releases that appeal to a tiny fraction of the people who bought, say, the Pearl Jam or Alice in Chains records he touted at Sony.


In a busy decade, Rosenthal has put out more than 100 new recordings and reissues, including titles from the country great Charlie Louvin and the late folk innovator Tim Buckley as well as superb contemporary players such as William Tyler and Ryley Walker. He’s just signed an “incredible” young singer from Ireland, he says, and on the day of an interview he’s en route to a recording session with Harvey Mandel, the guitar virtuoso who played at Woodstock with Canned Heat and has recorded with the Rolling Stones.

“I consider myself a pretty literate person when it comes to music,” says Rosenthal, who signs his name with a little doodle: a row of vertical lines, like a shelf of vinyl albums. “I sometimes wonder what it’s like for a person who isn’t literate musically.”

For him, attentive listening is an old-fashioned education as worthwhile as a healthy reading habit — another activity seemingly on the wane.

“That’s where our society is,” Rosenthal says. “The value of the arts in general is declining. There’s not as much music in schools, and there’s certainly a lot of anecdotal evidence that classical orchestras and ballets are struggling.”

The essays collected in “The Record Store of the Mind” are an exercise in free association, like a home DJ session conducted over a bottle of wine. Some are reprinted liner notes, others interview transcripts. One chapter explores jazz through Rosenthal’s recollections of his Uncle Moe, a fan who saw Coltrane and Charlie Parker perform. Readers will learn about forgotten artists such as Ron Davies (who inspired David Bowie) and Mickey Jupp (who practically invented “pub rock”), as well as some of Rosenthal’s guiltier pleasures. (We’re looking at you, “Just When I Needed You Most.”)


Moss, who will release a new album, “Fable,” in May, says he appreciates the deep-diving work of Rosenthal and the few remaining independent-label stalwarts like him.

“What I love about Tompkins Square is that I can trust them,” he says. “Josh is like a tastemaker: When he puts out a new record, I want to hear it. The likelihood that it’s going to be great, something I want to share with people, is very high. I can’t think of much he’s done that I don’t like.”

Though Rosenthal’s daughters tolerate his crate-digging habit, their idea of roots music is more Taylor Swift than Hound Dog Taylor.


“I don’t discourage them,” he says. In fact, he likes some of the pop music they introduce him to. “For long periods, maybe decades, I didn’t follow it, didn’t even know what was on hit radio, for better or worse.”

Undeniably, his record-collecting compulsion includes a heavy dose of nostalgia. For that, he’s unapologetic.

“I’m very sentimental about my copy of [Bob Dylan’s] ‘Bringing It All Back Home,’ ” he says. “It’s not just a copy, it’s my copy. The one I bought at age 14, the one that changed my brain.”


Yes, it’s a physical possession, and you can’t take them with you when you go. But in the record store of the mind, at least, there’s never any shortage of storage space.

Josh Rosenthal: The Record Store of the Mind

With Sam Moss. At Deep Thoughts JP, Jamaica Plain, April 2 at 5 p.m.

James Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.