Wednesday, October 24, 2012

past pieces of toronto: the sam the record man signs

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the "Past Pieces of Toronto" column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was orginally published on November 21, 2011.

Lighting the Sam The Record Man Sign for the Last Time (2)

For four decades, solo or as a pair, the spinning neon records of Sam the Record Man were a Yonge Street landmark. Tacky to some, a reassuring sight to others, they lured music lovers into the store to linger. When the site was purchased by Ryerson University in 2007 part of the deal was that the discs would be remounted on the school’s new Student Learning Centre or a nearby building. Now that Ryerson President Sheldon Levy is having second thoughts about bringing the signs out of storage, there’s a strong possibility the only places to see them will be old photos, YouTube videos and SCTV’s parody of Goin’ Down the Road.

Entering Sam the Record Man was like visiting a museum of music history. The place had a ramshackle charm, with numerous expansions resulting in clashing decor styles and uneven floors. The walls of the older sections were filled with fading celebrity signatures. You didn’t dash in and out of Sam’s for the newest album you wanted; you spent hours browsing for hidden treasures, whether it was an obscure import, cassettes of bird sounds from Point Pelee or a Body Break CD from the bargain bin. As late as the 1990s the store’s warehouse reportedly had 30,000 78s in stock. As Dave Bidini summed up the Sam’s experience in a 2001 National Post article, “In a world that's changing too fast too soon, going to Sam's was to escape, to be swallowed in the bosom of the past, where discovery and adventure was part of life.”

Sam Sniderman entered the music business as a teenager when he began selling records in his family’s radio store on College Street in 1937, allegedly to impress his future wife. In 1961 he moved the business to 347 Yonge Street , where he set up shop two doors south of main rival A&A Records. As Sniderman noted in a 1967 interview with the Globe and Mail, “we’re friendly competitors, except that we’ll stab each other in the back whenever we get a chance.” By the end of the decade, Sniderman opened his first franchised store, located in the Golden Mile area of Scarborough, and erected the first of the iconic spinning records. They replaced a neon assembly that featured the store’s address number and a giant thermometer.

Over the next few decades, Sam the Record Man gradually expanded into three neighbouring properties. To the north, the store took over the site of one-time Gordon Lightfoot haunt Steele’s Tavern, which had served as a buffer between Sam’s and A&A and where the second spinning record was placed. To the south, the store crept toward Gould Street, swallowing up a historic CIBC branch. Sniderman also invested in other ventures that played off his store’s name, such as the Sam the Chinese Food Man restaurant, and built a chain that operated over 100 locations at its peak.

By the new millennium, Sam’s was in trouble. The business was slow to adapt to internet retailing and computing in general (Sam admitted he was a “paper-and-pencil guy”), while the rise in online file sharing took a bite out of sales. When Sam the Record Man declared bankruptcy on October 30, 2001, newspapers were filled with reminiscences of customers sad to see the store. The flagship store closed briefly after that year’s Boxing Day sale, but the records didn’t stop spinning for long—Sniderman’s sons Bobby and Jason reopened it in January 2002. They kept the store running for another five years until it closed for good in June 2007. A lone franchise carries on at Belleville’s Quinte Mall. The neon records spun for the final time during 2008’s edition of Nuit Blanche, then went into a hibernation that increasingly looks like a permanent rest.

Additional material from the February 11, 1967 edition of the Globe and Mail, the November 1, 2001 edition of the National Post, and the November 3, 2001 edition of the Toronto Star. Photo of Sam the Record Man taken by Jamie Bradburn, October 5, 2008. "Sam the Record Man" Sniderman passed away in September 2012.

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