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“Still Life with Profile of Laval,” Paul Gauguin
“I was not consciously entrepreneurial. ‘Entrepreneur’ was not part of the vocabulary then. It was the Depression. People were simply trying to make a living.”
“We talked my father into calling back his friend to buy the carload so we could investigate this business idea,” Josefowitz says in a deep middle-European accented voice that is full of pragmatic wisdom and humor. The brothers decided to produce their own classical music records and since they had only a limited supply of vinyl, to offer them in limited numbered editions to subscribers at a premium price. “For the first two years,” says Josefowitz, “it was a hobby. We didn’t make any money. Then, with the arrival of the long-playing record, our business took off.”

Josefowitz and his brother launched their record club, called the Concert Hall Society, from a position of some strength. David Josefowitz was an accomplished violinist, and instantly demonstrated taste and knowledge in his selection of music and musicians. The brothers did everything from choosing the compositions to record, to deciding which musicians to engage, to renting the recording studio. Their first release, a performance of Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 2 in F Major, was lauded by The New York Times as evidence that the label had “high aims.”

They also had a relatively open field to play in, because many great classical works had yet to be recorded. For example, they produced the first complete American recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, sparking interest in the composer’s music. In all, they produced more than 2,000 LPs, and their recordings won many international awards.

Eventually, when Josefowitz and his brother determined that their long list of record subscribers would also be interested in books, they began building a network of what would become some of the largest book clubs in the world, including Cercle du Bibliophile in France, Heron Books in Great Britain, and Japan Mail Order Co. At its height, this network published almost a title a day and served 12 million subscribers in 20 countries.

In 1969, Herbert R. Lottman of The New York Times wrote, “I think it’s fair to say that Mr. Josefowitz’s secret weapon is quality merchandise. His books are both attractive and significant-seeming.”

Josefowitz’s business model may have worked so beautifully because he was already exploring its essential concepts as a teenaged undergraduate at Rensselaer in the late 1930s. “Even in college, I would buy things by mail. I was interested in mail order advertising as a direct way of motivating people to purchase,” he says.

He financed part of his college expenses by creating a photo subscription business. Josefowitz, whose terrific eye would eventually influence museum curators, regularly photographed school events. He’d make matted enlarged prints and sell subscriptions to them to Troy stores, which would rotate his photos through their windows to encourage Rensselaer students to come in and shop.

Suggest, however, that Josefowitz was a born entrepreneur, and he will disagree. “I was not consciously entrepreneurial,” says Josefowitz. “‘Entrepreneur’ was not part of the vocabulary then. It still was the big Depression of the ’30s. People were simply trying to make a living.”

Josefowitz came to Rensselaer from Switzerland in 1938 because his father, whom Josefowitz describes as “very astute about politics and world events,” knew the war was coming and he wanted his children to have an American education. There was an uncle in Boston, and Josefowitz and his brother David arrived there just a month before “the British Prime Minister, Chamberlain, declared that he had achieved ‘peace for our time,’ ” as Josefowitz dryly puts it.

David applied to MIT and was accepted as a second-year chemistry major. “I was so young, just 16,” says Josefowitz, “and MIT found that my English was not good enough. They thought I should wait a year to improve it.” Josefowitz, typically independent-minded, thought otherwise: “A friend from Switzerland was a sophomore attending RPI and had written to me how much he enjoyed it. I took the next train to Troy and was admitted right away.”

Assuming that he could specialize in chemical engineering later, the natural subject given his father’s business, Josefowitz majored instead in the more management-oriented industrial engineering. “I was always not only interested in how physical and material things worked,” Josefowitz explains, “but also in social and economic problems and solutions. My way of thinking was not purely technical.”

He adds, “At Rensselaer, I learned the importance of strict intellectual honesty in analyzing problems. It was responsible in shaping my career and other aspects of my life.”

Josefowitz was at the top of his class as a student, and he actively participated in the cocurricular life of Rensselaer, contributing to the humor magazine The Pup, the RPI Players, Camera Club, and the Economics Club, and serving as class historian.

He completed his undergraduate degree fully expecting that he would be in high demand in the job market. “America had just entered the war. There was a great need for engineers, and many job recruiters came to Rensselaer. But on their job applications the first question, after your name and address, was religion,” Josefowitz says.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2009 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.