Photo by David Sherret from Flickr.
Torontoist has already devoted a great deal of time and space to Sam The Record Man and its closure tomorrow evening. We petitioned you to “Save Our Sams,” covered the auction and heritage designation of the sign and building, and as many of the comments in response to the posts have indicated, our readership is very polarized on the amount of attention we—and the media as a whole—are giving it. Still, we feel it is our duty to properly bid farewell to a place that was more than just a retail space. Sam The Record Man has become a Toronto landmark, established completely out of nothing by our own Sam Sniderman seventy years ago.
What made Sam The Record Man so unique was that it managed to retain the feel of an independent record shop, with quirky décor and knowledgeable staff, while carrying a staggeringly large selection of music, from the hottest sellers to independent local talent. You knew Sam’s was a different beast when you would step into its jazz or classical departments, be faced with an endless array of titles and find music snobs who were actually happy to help you find something to suit your tastes—even if you didn’t really know what you were looking for. And unlike HMV or Best Buy, the place was rarely—if ever—armed with a security guard, and staff was allowed to wear whatever the hell they wanted.
Seventy years ago, a 17-year-old Sam Sniderman began selling records at his brother Sidney’s radio shop. Although Sniderman Radio Sales & Service had been around since 1929, Sam’s record department quickly became the backbone of the store, and by 1959, Sam decided to purchase a neighbouring Yonge Street furniture store and turn it into a record shop. Two years later, the two units were consolidated into the Yonge Street flagship that has become a highlight of the neighbourhood in the decades since.
Of course, there was a time when Sam The Record Man gave off the illusion of being a part of the corporate world. By 1969, the store had become so successful that a national chain was launched. It remained a wholly family affair, with Sam Sniderman as President, sons Bobby and Jason as Vice Presidents and brother Sidney as Secretary-Treasurer. By the 1980s and early 1990s, Sam’s had more than 130 stores across Canada—the sum of which accounted for between 15% and 20% of Canada’s recorded music retail business. Unfortunately, many of the locations were lackluster mall stores with inexperienced staff, jacked-up prices and limited selection. They simply could not match the appeal of the Yonge Street flagship.
In October 2001, just one year after Sam Sniderman’s retirement, Sam The Record Man filed for bankruptcy, citing declines in music sales and stiffening competition from big box stores and the internet as their reasons. This forced most of the chain to close, aside from a few franchised outlets. In fact, the Yonge Street flagship was only saved through a last-ditch effort by Sam Sniderman’s two sons, Bobby and Jason.
Sam’s managed to last another six years before Bobby and Jason Sniderman announced its closure on May 29, 2007. The main reason listed this time was “the increasing impact of technology on the record industry.” It will be the end of an era for so many reasons: from Sam Sniderman’s role in shaping the Canadian music industry, to the widespread appeal of the store itself and its ability to stay relevant while so many of its competitors faded away.
Beyond his role as a retailer, Sam Sniderman was an important influence on the Canadian music business as a whole. A champion of cultural heritage, Sniderman co-established the Recordings Archive Library at the University of Toronto, which at one time was Canada’s largest collection of its kind. He was also an early champion of CanCon regulations, which helped many Canadian artists gain exposure without having to compete with more popular international talent. These efforts, more than anything, led Sniderman to receive the Order of Canada title in 1976 (along with the Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award at the 1989 Junos, the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for voluntarism in 1999 and an industry builder award from the East Coast Music Association in 2001. He even has a spot in the Canadian Country Music Association Hall of Fame).
History aside, for so many of us, Sam The Record Man was simply a good friend who always let you hang out for a few hours and listen to music. On Sunday, when the store closes its doors for good, we’ll be thinking about the times spent, the records bought and the role this Yonge Street building played in our lives.
Photo of Sam’s farewell message by –brian– from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.