Toronto’s Yonge Street has a reputation as the city’s main drag, extending its pavement from the foot of Queens Quay on the shore of Lake Ontario to the city limits at Steeles Avenue and beyond. Lining its route are all manners of attractions for the curious, including the huge Eaton Centre (Toronto’s largest shopping mall), Dundas Square, and that most holy of Canadian shrines, the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Since 1959, the corner of Gould and Yonge Streets played host to one of the most recognizable landmarks of Toronto: two giant, gaudy, neon-filled records, ‘spinning’ in the dark. This was the flagship location for one of Canada’s largest and best-loved music stores: Sam the Record Man.
Sam the Record Man on its final night – photo courtesy JBCurio via Wikimedia
Sam’s started in 1937, in an shop in a faraway corner of Toronto. Sam Sniderman (the eponymous Record Man) and his brother Sidney started the operation as a department within their family’s radio store, but by 1959, Sam was ready to strike out on his own and moved his operation to 347 Yonge Street – next door to competitor A&A Records. As his empire grew, Sniderman opened hundreds of outlets across Ontario and the rest of Canada, eventually dethroning A&A from of its position at the top of the Canadian record biz – and eventually taking over their neighboring Yonge Street store. Boxing Day sales were legendary at Sam’s, with deep discounts on records (and later, tapes and CDs) generating queues of chilly Torontonians that stretched around the block.
However, as the recording industry became more Internet-based, Sam’s (as well as many other music retailers) saw their sales plummet. Even competitor HMV, whose huge, multinational industry reach (and conspicuously located store across the street from Sam’s at 333 Yonge) had helped edge them above Sam’s in the record business, couldn’t keep their heads above water. On 30 October 2001, Sam’s filed for bankruptcy and closed all of their wholly owned stores, leaving only the Yonge Street flagship (reopened the next year with Sniderman’s sons at the helm) and 11 locally-owned franchises open. Sam the Record Man managed to linger on until finally, on 30 June 2007, the iconic signs were switched off (though they’d be relit once for Nuit Blanche in 2008 – see above photo) and Sam’s closed its doors for good. The building that housed it was soon purchased by nearby Ryerson University to be used as a new student centre; to that end, it was reduced to a pile of rubble by the end of 2009.
The building had been hastily declared a Heritage site in an effort to preserve the iconic neon record signs (as the Ontario Heritage Act has no provisions for saving signs without their buildings), but with the demolition of the building, the fate of the records is now in serious question. Part of the deal with the city of Toronto that allowed the demolition of a listed building included a clause that says the university is obliged to take the signs, repair them and put them back on one of two sites — either the new Learning Centre or another building nearby. However, the powers-that-be at Ryerson have indicated that, due to money, they no longer intend to do this, instead opting to replace the signs with ‘digital representations’ – likely video projectors that would shine a facsimile of the sign onto the sidewalk next to Yonge Street. Not quite the same thing.
During Sam’s swan song at the beginning of 2009, I happened to find myself in Toronto, and one night, in the company of Dresden and Rustblade, we paid our respects to the Record Man. In just a few short weeks, Sam’s would be reduced to a pile of rubble, so we elected to strike while the iron was hot. Our entry point was, as things go, a pretty sketchy one, but the impending doom of this site meant the risk-to-reward ratio was unusually high. Plus, at this late hour of night, traffic on busy Yonge Street had slowed to a crawl. With lookouts posted at the ends of the the alley, Rust and I poked and prodded until, inevitably, we found our way in. We beckoned to the others, and into the now-derelict landmark we went.
Preparation for demolition was well under way, the walls and floors mostly stripped to their structural foundations. Piles of salvaged pipe, conduit, and wire littered the floors, and loose boards threatened to send us flying at the first misstep. The adjoining rooms were much the same, and we had the sense that workers had been here quite recently, salvaging the last of the materials inside Sam’s that were worth keeping. The squad then whipped out our respective cameras, and the *whoosh* of traffic passing on Yonge Street was soon joined by the occasional clicking of our shutters as we photographed what remained of the first floor.
Looking towards the Yonge Street entrance, the advanced state of demolition prep is apparent.
As we proceeded upstairs, we found that things were much the same, but the hastily deconstructed state of the upper floors gave off a strange sense of urgency. Not only had the walls been stripped of their electrical conduit and wiring, some appeared to be losing their plaster as well. The workers had been here recently, too, leaving work lights, empty wrappers, and even a few wayward hard hats and Nomex bunny suits to mark their presence. However, for the time being, we were still by ourselves, with only our own curiosity to lead us farther up the stairs.
A hole in the side of the building reveals cars passing below on Yonge Street. This hole may have been the consequence of the removal of the huge record signs which adorned the front of Sam’s.
Access to the upper floors allowed us to move between the original store on the corner and the two adjoining buildings that Sam’s took over and assimilated into itself during its existence. In the early years, Sam’s did daily battle with their archrivals A&A Records, with only Steele’s Tavern in a narrow slice of a storefront separating the two along Yonge Street. With each new acquisition, interior walls fell to their new owner, and the previously separate buildings were fused together.
The corner of Yonge and Gould in 1973 – A&A and Sam the Record Man adjoin each other at this point, but by the 1980s, all three buildings would belong to the Record Man. The second record sign would later be installed on top of Steele’s. – Photo courtesy Bob Whalen via Panoramio
All of a sudden, the relative silence was broken by a group of wailing sirens coming down Yonge Street. The sirens grew nearer, until they stopped just as they were about to pass by. We spent a few breathless moments paused in an upstairs corridor, waiting to see if we had been found out. After a few minutes, there was still no sound coming from downstairs, no shouts or doors slamming; it seemed the fire was somewhere else, so to speak, so we continued on. Finally, we reached the building’s final ladder, and with nowhere to go but up, the deed was done. We paused for a moment on the roof for gratuitous self-portraits, overlooking the garish lights of nearby Dundas Square.
The squad on the roof of Sam’s; this excellent view would no longer exist in roughly 3 months’ time.
After paying our respects to the soon-to-be-dust Record Man, we headed back for ground level and made good our escape. No alarms, no sirens at the end of the alley, just the four of us rejoining the foot traffic on Yonge, heading off into the night with a new story to tell.
Sam’s has been reduced to an empty lot now, and soon construction will begin on Ryerson’s new student centre – leaving only photograph and memories of those huge, spinning, neon records, twinkling away in the night. However, for the multitudes of Torontonians that grew up with Sam’s as the cool place to be, those memories will remain especially strong.