In order for an autobiographical collection to have merit, one of two things must be in place: either the author is established enough to be worth reading about, or his/her experiences and observations are insightful and entertaining enough to keep readers interested along the way. Of course, both conditions are usually met for memoirs, and The Record Store of the Mind by Josh Rosenthal is no exception. Filled with robust details, larger than life personalities, and a fine balance of tongue-in-cheek humor and impassioned perceptions, the book is a persistently meticulous yet extremely accessible and welcoming journey into Rosenthal’s experiences both inside and outside of the music industry.
As the founder of San Francisco-based independent record label Tompkins Square (which celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2015), Rosenthal certainly knows a few things about working with artists, the press, and all other facets of the business; however, he doesn’t really approach his narrative from the perspective of a judicious entrepreneur discussing the trials and tribulations of his empire. Indeed, he’d probably laugh at the notion of calling Tompkins Square an “empire”, as he often indulges in self-deprecating asides. Instead, almost all of the chapters in The Record Store of the Mind are written as lovingly earnest exposés of under-appreciated (and sometimes deceased) musicians with whom he’s worked and/or grew up.
In other words, Rosenthal pays tribute to musicians whose talents and impact never truly yielded the accolades and popularity they deserved. This distinction is more significant and rare than it may sound, as such priorities are infrequent within this format. After all, how many autobiographers would use their platform to promote the greatness of other people?
Naturally, Rosenthal connects these accounts to his own accomplishments and unwavering tastes (so he’s not totally selfless), but there’s still an endearingly altruistic nature beneath it all. In this way, The Record Store of the Mind presents him as a bleeding heart music snob full of compassion, nostalgia, and selective opinions. (To be fair, is there a diehard music fan who isn’t at least a bit elitist about his/her tastes?). In fact, his voice and commentary bear a striking similarity to those of the central character in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (although Rosenthal is much warmer and, well, rational). Take, for example, his introduction, whose second sentence reads: “On the Corner is my favorite record store in the Bay Area, although I’m a bit hesitant to say so, because I don’t want you to go there.”
A bit later on, he details how he sometimes drags his daughters along for lengthy rummages through various record stores, garage sales, and the like. Not only does this situation resonate with any reader who’s also a music aficionado, but it also establishes Rosenthal as a self-aware devotee whose fandom sometimes conflicts with other concerns. When his older daughter, Emma, asks, “How do you know what you’re looking for?” he says, “Normally I’d muster some mildly irritated dad-grunt as acknowledgment that I’d heard her voice, as she’s so accustomed to, especially in record stores.”
He follows this by admitting that “it’s The Quest that makes collectors crazy in the head … you go to the flea market because you never know what might be there, and the possibilities are infinite”, before concluding that “ .. the record store isn’t just a place to idly dawdle. It’s a place where magic can happen.” This opening section sets up his disposition perfectly, allowing the ensuing recollections about “some stuff [he’s] done in and around music over the past thirty years” to have established context.
As for the subsequent musician profiles, each one is fascinating in different ways. Typically, they revolve around players and songwriters who never became household names yet still have an impact on present day music. In “Harvey Mandel: An Appreciation”, Rosenthal mentions how the late guitarist played with legends (like Buddy Guy, John Mayall, and Muddy Waters), influenced future icons (like Eddie Van Halen and Ritchie Blackmore), and was sampled by people outside of his field (like Del the Funky Homosapien and Nas). In addition, he mentions how Mandel fell on especially hard times in recent years (for starters, he was diagnosed with nasal cancer and lost both his mother and only son). He even ends with a genuine appeal:
I’m not trying to make you sad, dear reader, or give you another sob story. But when one of your musical heroes is so besieged with suffering, it prompts you to act. We all see pleas online to help someone. They are easy to ignore. Harvey really needs help.
Rosenthal also delves into some personal memories, such as when he transitions from tidbits about Syosset, Long Island to quips about the influence of Billy Joel and Led Zeppelin on his upbringing (“my parents named their cars Brenda and Eddie”), as well as his appreciation for strings and fantastical portrayals of love in pop music. He even says that a store called Straub Music is where he “first experienced the thrill of music discovery”.
Perhaps most interesting are his revelations about being a childhood friend of writer/director Judd Apatow (“collecting signatures was a passion we shared”), whom he says references Syosset in “subtle and not-so-subtle” ways throughout his work. Although his shifts in focus can be a bit jarring at times in this chapter (and a few others), its quick pace and plethora of trivia is undeniably absorbing.
Not only are Rosenthal’s innumerable tales engrossing, but the ways in which he alternates writing styles and formats keeps the book fresh on a technical level. For example, he transcribes lyrics, track listings, interviews, and emails related to some of these musicians, as well as song-by-song and artist descriptions. There’s a few pages about the people included in his “Obscure Giants of Acoustic Guitar” trading card set, and a lengthy sequence of concerts he’s attended.
Unsurprisingly, there’s even an ironic list dedicated to whether or not someone should start a record label, plus an annotated catalog of “records from [his] collection that are ‘of musical interest’”. These inclusions help spice things up, as well as offer a deeper look into how Rosenthal became who and what he is.
The Record Store of the Mind is an exceptional look into both the musical side of its author and the music business as a whole. While an obvious caveat could be that because several of the players and subgenres Rosenthal discusses aren’t especially popular, some readers may lose interest in them, that’s never really an issue because their stories are still wonderfully detailed, relatable, and impressive.
Most of all, it’s Rosenthal’s layered personality, subtle morality, and sense of humor that makes the book so worthwhile. If you’re as enveloped in music as he is, you’ll surely find plenty to dig here.