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The Sam the Record Man Sign is Almost Definitely Never Returning to Yonge Street

In 2008, Ryerson promised to restore famous neon sign, but now the City is in the process of letting the university off the hook.

The Sam's sign, in its heyday  Photo by Shane S , from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

The Sam’s sign, in its heyday. Photo by Shane S., from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Can you break a written agreement with the City and get away with it? Ryerson University is about to find out.

In 2008, when Ryerson bought the Sam the Record Man building at Yonge and Gould streets, the City was trying to get heritage designation for the property—which, after all, had been home to one of Toronto’s oldest and most distinctive music stores. Heritage designation would have put major legal obstacles in the way of Ryerson’s plan to demolish Sam’s and replace it with a new student learning centre.

In exchange for the City dropping its push for heritage protection, Ryerson signed an agreement saying that Sam the Record Man’s sign—an iconic, neon-traced pair of giant, spinning records—would be put back up somewhere on the university’s property, either on Yonge or Gould Street. The university had until summer 2011 to decide where to put the sign. It never did decide, and the spinning records remain in storage.

Now, the City is recommending that city council let Ryerson off the hook. A new proposal, set to go before Toronto and East York Community Council during its meeting on September 10, says the university should be allowed to renege on its promise. Ryerson would no longer be obligated to restore and reinstall the sign. Instead, it would have to commit to a commemorative strategy that would include installing a sidewalk insert with a picture of the sign (shown below, in an architectural rendering) and an “interpretive plaque.”

A commemorative sidewalk insert in front of Ryerson’s new Student Learning Centre. Image courtesy of the City.

Under the proposal, Ryerson would be required to continue storing the Sam’s sign for two more years, in case some other opportunity to restore it should present itself. The university would have to give the City 60 days’ notice before removing the sign from storage.

“While heritage staff are disappointed that Ryerson has been unable to find a feasible way to restore the original iconic signs to their historic context,” says the City staff report on the proposal, “we are now satisfied that the University has given serious consideration to the matter.”

In the past, Ryerson has been evasive about its intentions for the Sam’s sign, but the staff report makes mention of several logistical problems with putting it up on university property, including maintenance costs, structural risks, and the possibility of mercury spillage.

The sign is massive—the neon records are at least two storeys high—and so it’s hard to imagine it ever finding a loving home. It’s not as though it can be put into a display case somewhere.

Ryerson’s reprieve isn’t final yet, though: city council could still overturn this whole thing.

CORRECTION: August 29, 2013, 3:15 PM This post originally mistakenly referred to Toronto and East York Community Council as “Etobicoke and East York Community Council.”


  • andyfrank

    I like the sidewalk thing, looks better than the clunky old sign, progress, move forward, it was just a friggin’ record store

    • shame.

      and that’s why culture is dead. because we have people like you destroying history, and puting inplace disposable cash and go buildings that will never last aslong as sam’s did. gross.

      • HotDang

        Do you care to defend your “culture is dead” assertion?

        • vampchick21

          Apparently condos. And hipsters.

      • Steveinto

        If culture is dead why are you still alive. Do you even understand what culture is? I’ll give you hint it is the life blood of civilization its alive breaths and flows with time.

    • Jason Paris

      Actually, no it isn’t “just another friggin’ record store” or another friggin’ sign for that matter.

      • Steveinto

        Yes it is, all that is needed is a plaque to commemorate the location and the man who started it. History books will do a much better job at preserving the legacy.

        • Rustbutt

          No it is not! Keep your mouth shut if you don’t know what you’re talking about, which it is quite obvious you don’t.

          • Steve

            Trolling? Honestly can’t tell.

        • tyrannosaurus_rek

          A photo in a history book can’t give you a sense of the place, the scale, the experience of coming across it for the first time.

        • Jason Paris

          So history books do a better job at preserving history than history itself? If that’s your answer to this, then no further comment is required.

  • defenestr8or

    It would be so great if the sign and the Honest Ed’s sign could go to the Guild Inn with all the old columns and facades and statuary. A little like the neon graveyard in Las Vegas.

    • dsmithhfx

      Neon signs would be wildly out of place in Guildwood. Betcha pieces of glass condo balcony will never be preserved for posterity like those beautifully hand-carved old columns, facades and statuary.

  • mjennings

    WTF does Etobicoke City council have to do with this matter? Please let us off of Harris’s nightmare called “the amalgamation ride to hell”.

    • Jason Paris

      It doesn’t. It was a misprint. It’s Toronto-East York Community Counci.

  • Rick City

    Put the Sam’s sign and the Honest Ed’s sign in Dundas Square and move on.

    • HotDang

      That would cut into ad revenue.

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    Put the actual sign in the sidewalk, under super tough plexiglass or whatever.

    And then sue Ryerson.

    • milanista1

      I was about to write that!

      • phillip

        In a 2 story wide side walk, and cover it with transparent aluminium…like they used in star trek.

  • ModernLife

    Correction: Toronto and East York Community Council

    • SteveKupferman

      Thanks for pointing this out. I’ve made the correction.

  • bobloblawbloblawblah

    What’s the point of a deal if you just let the other party off because they don’t really want to fulfill their obligations? This is why so much of Toronto’s history is lost – time and again we let developers, etc off the hook. Make Ryerson restore the sign, put it on Yonge or at least in Dundas Square with a commemorative plaque. The city waived the Heritage designation, Ryerson should keep it’s end of the deal. Sam’s was a big part of Toronto history, both music and retail.

    • HotDang

      The sign was an ad. Apparently these ads were very effective
      because everyone talks about preserving the heritage of places like
      Sam’s and Ed’s while hundreds of other defunct businesses, many equally
      relevant culturally, are happily forgotten.

      As such it doesn’t make sense to claim that the sign is being preserved as a memento of a lost scene of commerce and culture. These are only being preserved because they were effective advertisements. It’s disingenuous to frame the argument as one of preserving cultural or commercial heritage.

      Viewed through this lens neither sign deserves preservation. Our history would be much better served by erecting monuments to the people and events that they associate with these ads. E.g. a Rush or Rough Trade plaque near Sam’s.

      • tyrannosaurus_rek

        They may be/have been effective signs (not ads, signs), but that’s not why people want them preserved. Their effectiveness – that’s to say, their enormity and in-your-face garishness – and longevity made them landmarks.

        They are as much “effective advertisements” for Ed’s/Sam’s as the CN Tower is for the Canadian National Railway Company. Let’s tear that down too, eh?

        • HotDang

          I always navigated by the pizza pizza sign made of reflective chips.

          The CN tower analogy is not apt.
          a. It doesn’t exist to prompt people to buy from CN Rail. If it’s advertising for anything it’s advertising Toronto.

          b. It’s a whole building and thousands of times bigger than the sign.
          c. It serves other purposes more primarily than advertising. I.e. tourism and broadcasting.

          d. It was the tallest freestanding structure in the world for a long time, which is an achievement much more notable than the Sam’s sign.
          e. I’m no civil engineer but the cn tower doesn’t seem to be the kind of building that would be easy to maintain for a very long time. I suspect it will be taken down someday.

  • godo

    With a large music history in Toronto, I’m surprised no one has tried to create a “Canadian music hall of fame.” The sign would go well with it.

    • Suicide Boi

      That would be a fun museum. Perhaps build it at the Honest Ed’s site.

      • vampchick21

        For once you said something interesting! A museum of Toronto at the Honest Ed’s site would be perfect! This city has so much history, good, bad, weird, and everything in between, that it shouldn’t be reduced to bronze plaques no one reads and the occasional mention in a blog or newspaper. Other towns and counties have museums dedicated to local history, let’s have one in Toronto. And the Honest Ed’s building would be the place to have it.

        • HotDang

          I read the plaques. Also, it’s a dumb idea because Ryerson owns it, not the city. That ship has sailed.

          • vampchick21

            I read the plaques too. But not everyone does, and not everything in our history is on a plaque. And really, it’s not a dumb idea, because a museum of Toronto wouldn’t just be about the Sam sign (which can always be purchased by whatever organization would create said museum…which at this moment is nothing more than a discussion in the comments section on a blog). It would be about a lot more. It would be about pre-colonial, it would be about Muddy York and everything that came after. It would be about our social history, our cultural history, our political history. So far from a dumb idea. I like it. I like it enough that I’m going to try to figure out how one would propose such an idea and start working towards it. Also, I like museums.

          • dsmithhfx

            I like museums too. Right now, though, there’s a problem of not enough people going to visit them anymore, and all fighting for a piece of the funding pie. The city has a number of small museums scattered around in different neighborhoods dedicated to aspects of local history. We’ll see how many survive the next round of budget cuts instigated by our innumerate bean counter on crack.

          • vampchick21

            That’s the sad, sad truth, and not just in Toronto.

          • HotDang

            The museum is a great idea. Putting it at Yonge and Gould isn’t going to happen though.

          • vampchick21

            Well, that wasn’t exactly my suggested spot…

    • tyrannosaurus_rek

      Or a Museum of Toronto.

  • OgtheDim

    I never quite understood why people thought they were worth saving. It would be like saving a Pizza Pizza sign.

    Like, I loved Sams but realistically, the best part of that place were, in no particular order, the staff, the knooks and crannies, and the selection.

    IIRC, it was people on a certain morning TV show that got the city thinking of saving them.

    Given said morning TV show is now housed really close to the old Sam’s site, maybe there parent company could put it up there……..oh wait…this is the same parent company that built a statue to its patriarch in front of a sporting facility built by our money but bought for dirt cheap. Never mind.

  • Paul Kishimoto

    To match the theme on Yonge—heritage-designated things accidentally falling down, or accidentally being on fire—Ryerson should just claim someone accidentally dropped a hammer thousands of times on the sign wherever it lies in storage.

    • OgtheDim

      Sad but knowing how post-secondary institutions operate, I wouldn’t be surprised if a version of this already happened.

      Ryerson isn’t exactly known for giving a darn about the past.

      • Paul Kishimoto

        I was being a bit sarcastic, but you nailed it.

        Suppose you’ve bought a heritage building in a prime spot. To comply with the designation you must preserve the facade as you redevelop the property, which increases construction and design costs. Oh well, you stand to make a lot of money anyway.

        But say you also put up minimal hoarding and don’t bother to hire any security guards or install cameras. Maybe some hobo firebug wanders in one night and burns the place to the ground. How tragic! And yet how fortunate, that you save money on demolition, design and construction, without having “wilfully” done anything wrong.

        I get the impression people don’t face the right incentives to *avoid* being neglectful. Members of community or city council who’d let Ryerson off the hook in the place don’t seem eager to set those incentives.

  • sam

    How much mercury is there in a neon sign?

  • Steve

    would it be cool to preserve it? yes
    would I be willing to personally back it with my wallet? no
    can I expect that others will back it with their wallets? no
    do I think it would be attractive and help clean up that area of town? no
    does that stretch of Yonge street need cleaning up? yes
    Overall how do I feel about this? fine

  • selonmoi

    Good. The new Ryerson building will be beautiful and that sign was hideous. I don’t miss it at all.

  • dsmithhfx

    Keep Ryerson’s feet to the fire. Either they restore the sign, or the city contracts it out and bills them for it

  • moleski

    It’s the principle that’s important here.

    If Ryerson is let off the hook after signing a legal agreement with the city, every other developer in Toronto can now feel free to repudiate agreements to preserve heritage with impunity.

    If the City Heritage Department and Council don’t have the guts to enforce agreements, why don’t we just lay off what’s left of the City Heritage Department? Why pretend that we give a rat’s ass about heritage?

  • Frederick W Harrison

    The sidewalk plaque will last as long as the sidewalk, possibly a decade. I worked at Sams for 26 years and they redid the sidewalk twice in that time. Take a look at the Yonge Street tribute in the sidewalk outside the Eaton Centre and see how well that’s lasted. (It hasn’t.)

    While it would be appropriate to recognize Sams, the loss of that iconic retailer was preceded by the loss of A&A Records who began what became known as “record alley”. In addition, several other record stores competed for business between Shuter and Carlton Streets at various times: the Record Rocket located in an old TTC streetcar just around the corner on Dundas Street prior to becoming a Records on Wheels store and relocating to the street level above the Piccadilly Tube restaurant/bar on what is now the Atrium at Bay; Music World (in the now demolished Edison Hotel building), Bargain Harolds (just across from…), Eatons College Park, Cheapies (currently a Panera bakery/restaurant), Cheap Thrills (a used store on the second floor just north of the Swiss Chalet that later moved to the side street north of the Metro Reference Library), Kellys Stereo Mart (where the Swiss Chalet is), and Sunrise (originally across from the middle of the Eaton Centre, now across the street from where Sams used to be, the Vinyl Museum (just north of A&A Records), and a store whose name I’ve forgotten that sold used records on the second floor in a building on the west side of Yonge, just below Gerrard at the side street leading to the Delta College Park hotel. In the immediate vicinity on Dundas St. were, at various times, Vortex Records (originally opened on Augusta Ave. in Kensington Market), The Jazz & Blues Store, . Further north on Yonge Street but south of Bloor were Circle of Sound, Records on Wheels (who started in a bus that parked on Gould Street outside Sams), Mister Sound, and Target Tape and Jonathan Lipson’s Incredible (Ripoff) Record Store. Elsewhere, at various times, were Round Records (“one flight high” where Holt Renfrew now stands), another A&A Records (near the U of T), a store in the basement near the Bay station entrance that sold German import lps and plastic record holders, and The Record Peddler (originally near City TV’s old location on Queen East, later on Carlton Street across from Maple Leaf Gardens). And still on Baldwin Street is Around Again, a used record store that has stood the test of time and change of listening formats. Also current are Sonic Boom, Discoveries, Mike’s Music, BMV, Kops and a host of other stores. Plus other new and used record stores (Driftwood, Don’s Discs, Penny Lane, Discworks) that have come and gone.

    Now record alley is down to Sunrise, HMV, and Play De Record.

    The Yonge Street bars that used to have live music (Le Coq D’Or, Gasworks/Chimney, Piccadilly Tube, Colonial Tavern, Edison Hotel, Steeles’ Tavern) are also gone.

    Some form of tribute to the Yonge Street music scene is in order, as is a Canadian Music Hall of Fame. The Sams sign might be part of that. The Toronto Life/AMC building was to have been the location of such a museum, in connection with a Virgin Megastore, but after Virgin and HMV agreed not to infringe on each other’s established territories, the proposal fell through.

    But Ryerson should not be let off the hook, given a written agreement. To renege on a deal that was cut to spare them from having a heritage designation placed on the Sam the Record Man property sets a dangerous precedent for other existing heritage sites and those yet to be designated. Any developer could promise to preserve or restore a building, only to tear it down the next day (as was done with a heritage building in Islington Village many years ago) and claim that there was no way to work it into the development as a defense. And expect to be let off the hook for violating an agrreement, of course. Asking Ryerson to set aside part of their new building for a commemorative display would be a compromise, but I doubt they will agree to it.

    It was clear from the moment the plans and artist’s rendering were unveiled that the sign was not to be incorporated in the new building. There were rumours that the sign would be mounted high on the outside walls facing Gould Street of the current library building but that would be so high up that it would have little visual impact – plus be expensive to maintain, since the arm of a regular “bucket truck” would be unable to reach it. Why didn’t someone on council raise the question about the sign then? Or was there reluctance to proceed on an idea supported by former mayor David Miller during the term of Rob Ford, who has been an outspoken critic of Miller’s policies and projects?

    In the meantime, the sign sits in storage, with no guarantee that it will be preserved.
    Dundas Square would be a great location for it but that would mean finding a new space to mount it on or removing an existing sign/display. Anywhere else in the city outside of the Yonge/Dundas area would be meaningless with the sole exception of the old silos at Bathurst St. that were proposed as the site for a Canadian Music Hall of Fame.

    The other alternative would be to arrange to place the sign on the new building/condominium that is to replace the willfully neglected, partially collapsed, burnt through arson, and demolished Edison Hotel AND the property currently occupied by HMV. Ryerson could pay for mounting the sign and contribute to its maintenance. Given the contempt shown the city inspectors and tenants by the owners of the property, I think it would not be too difficult to make the approval of their development plans contingent upon incorporating the sign into the building. That would at least have the sign facing Yonge St., as it once did.

    • Lincoln

      Hey Frederick, I run Vortex Records and just wanted to thank you for your thoughtful post. Naming all those shops brings back lots of memories.

  • mr215

    there ought to be a place to display iconic removed electric signs to preserve our history.

  • WD

    A thought: Give it to Belleville and stick it on the roof of the Quinte Mall, because, you know, the last Sam’s (which is now independent but still bears the name) is in the Quinte Mall.

  • RyeGuy

    Just goes to show you that a promise by Ryerson president Sheldon Levy and a cup of coffee is worth about $1.95.

  • dsmithhfx

    No need. Ryerson signed an agreement to restore the sign.

  • dsmithhfx


  • Jason Paris

    Toronto is divided into four community councils. Toronto-East York is in charge of downtown Yonge.

  • Bettie Martindale

    The memories are good but the sign is ugly old junk. Reinstating it somewhere would be sad and not a worthy memorial now. Tossing it is the best thing to do.

  • Jeff Balmer
  • DocNonstop


  • Celeste

    They shouldn’t be allowed to tear it down. It’s a part of Toronto’s heritage. Sam Sniderman must be rolling over in his grave.