By Jay Young
The passing of Sam “the Record Man” Sniderman at the age of 92 filled the airwaves, newspaper pages, and conversations on the street in Toronto this past week. Sniderman owned the largest chain of record stores in Canada and ardently promoted the Canadian music industry. Many people expressed warm memories of the entrepreneur and his flagship shop on Yonge Street. His death has also prompted Canadians – and especially Torontonians – to reflect on change along downtown Yonge Street and within the Canadian music industry over the past half century.
Sam Sniderman was born in the Kensington Market neighbourhood of Toronto in 1920. At the age of seventeen, he started selling records with his brother Sidney out of the family’s radio store on nearby College Street. Twenty-two years later, he opened Sam the Record Man at 347 Yonge Street. By the late 1960s, the store – and its neon spinning record – had become an iconic part of the Yonge Street strip’s cityscape and a Toronto landmark (as Greg Hannah notes below, Sam’s erected a second spinning record when it expanded the store in subsequent decades).
Sniderman soon expanded his business by opening chains across the country. At its height in the 1980s and 1990s, almost 140 Sam the Record Man stores sold the latest hits across Canada’s main streets and malls.
He became an advocate for broadcast policies that favoured Canadian artists. This sentiment, which historian Ryan Edwardson has analyzed within the wider context of the “New Nationalism” in Canada, led to the establishment of “CanCon” regulations in the early 1970s. Sniderman also helped create the Junos, and he co-founded the University of Toronto’s Recordings Archive Library (now named The Sniderman Recordings Collection), which houses 180,000 sound recordings dating back to the early twentieth century. He received the Order of Canada for such activities in 1976.
Much has changed in the Canadian music industry and the area around the flagship Sam’s store since Sniderman erected his neon sign on Yonge Street more than four decades ago. Like almost all its chains, the downtown Toronto Sam’s store shut its doors in 2007. Today many Canadians purchase music online and listen to it on handheld digital devices, rather than scavenge through racks of vinyl and then enjoy the fruits of the search on a record player. And the Yonge Street strip increasingly shows less and less hints of its grittier, rock n’ roll days during the height of Sam’s downtown store.
“My memories of my first time I went down to Sam’s, coming out of the Dundas Street subway station, and seeing those big swirling records outside, and then going inside and seeing records everywhere – I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” he reflected. “Back then . . , the only places you could buy [records] were at department stores like The Bay or Eaton’s and they had very, very small selection, or sometimes local variety stores had rack jobbers who would put maybe twenty titles in there. They were high priced and . . . it was just random what they might happen to have. But Sam’s had everything.”
Bowman remembers a “weekly routine” of riding his bike to check out the store’s newest releases that were advertised every Thursday. He also underlined Sniderman’s support for the Canadian music industry. Sam’s not only stocked Canadian albums, but also featured them on its front racks beside greats such as Jimi Hendrix.
The outpouring of memories for Sam’s partly links to how the experience of consuming music has been transformed. Like others, Bowman feels that “downloading just is not the same thing. I like the tangible feeling of holding records, seeing records, the size of the record, the beautiful cover art. But also the interchange with the store employees. People there [at Sam’s] were knowledgeable,” including the owner himself.
Sniderman’s death also led to quick reaction on social media. The Toronto Star asked readers to tweet using the hashtag #SamMemories. On Vintage Toronto, a new Facebook group that allows followers to upload and comment on historic photographs of the city, people posted images of their own Sam’s memorabilia, from images of audiophiles in line for the store’s famous Boxing Day sales to its shopping bags, accompanied by warm memories of past shoppers.
My own memory of Sam’s is of a teenager from Niagara Falls during the 1990s. I’d make semi-annual treks with friends to Toronto and shop at the flagship store, along with nearby competitor HMV. It was a mecca that attracted not only music-loving Torontonians but also those like me who lived outside the city. Reflecting on the place of Sam’s in Toronto from a historical perspective, I connect my personal memories of visiting the city to buy music as part of a tradition in which consumers from the “hinterland” travelled to the metropolis for hard-to-find goods and provisions. For me, it was a rare compact disc (being the 1990s after all), rather than some small luxury of an older era, but the idea is the same.
The land where Sam’s flagship store once stood is now vacant. Ryerson University purchased the property in 2007, and plans to build a new student centre there. With Sniderman now gone, there is even more reason for his neon record sign to make its return to what was once the Yonge Street strip.
Jay Young is an editor at ActiveHistory.ca. He holds a PhD in history from York University.