By Brennan Doherty
Sam the Record Man will spin on. Bolted to Victoria Street’s Toronto public health building, a sleek 10-storey glass tower tucked into the northeast corner of Yonge-Dundas Square, the sign will get a second taste of the downtown core’s frantic energy. Tourists walking past the Imperial Pub can watch the sign’s kitschy pair of neon vinyl records standing guard on Victoria Street. But why is a relic of Toronto’s former weight in the Canadian music scene languishing in a corner of the country’s most famous square? Why isn’t it crowning its original spot at 347 Yonge St., just above the doors of Toronto’s most famous record store?
The contrast will be jarring during the day. The public health building (PHB) on Victoria is a monotonous slab of tinted glass the colour of charcoal, constantly reflecting the square back at itself. Huddled around the sign’s future home are some of Ryerson’s first buildings: all Brutalist, all seemingly poured out of cement trucks in the 1950s. Architects have moved on. In recent years, Ryerson’s administration has embraced glittering megastructures — the Student Learning Centre (SLC), the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre, and the (soon-to-be) Daphne Cockwell Health Sciences Complex. The university, under former president Sheldon Levy, started rushing Ryerson away from its past as a scrappy polytechnic institute. In the process, the school bought the Sam the Record Man store. The SLC rests on the building’s bones — and the sign ended up losing its place of pride on Yonge Street. The administration assured vinyl fans it would save the relic, but it’s taken a scandal, several years and some Toronto City Council intervention for the sign to actually near the end of its journey to restoration.
Neon is eternal in Yonge-Dundas Square. The sign will have a commanding view, but it’ll also have competition — from 10 Dundas East’s plasma screen wall of Cineplex ads, the Eaton Centre’s billboards (cherry-red summer dresses by H&M), the bubbly pastel-coloured Koodo signs opposite the PHB. Only the hyperactive rooftop ticker of City TV (MONDAY 8 THE MUPPETS … City News AT SIX … Mornings are a little different!…) was remotely designed in the same spirit as Sam’s logo. The sum total of the square’s blinding advertisements will erase the sign in an insomniac lightshow. For the first time in its storied history, the Sam sign can be easily ignored.
Sam Sniderman’s veins were forged from vinyl. He grew up in Kensington Market, then a Jewish neighbourhood, and began putting in hours as an associate for his brother’s radio store in the 1930s. But in 1959, he quit selling Zeniths and started selling vinyl out of a small store at Shuter and Yonge called Sam the Record Man. Eventually, his older brother Sid joined Sam’s company to do the books. Sam’s second store would become the famous flagship location on 347 Yonge St., just north of the Eaton Centre. Sam (always Sam, never Mr. Sniderman) was always roaming the floors, tracking down obscure records with an eidetic memory that seemed to rival any inventory program.
“Sam was the figurehead. He was the face,” says Craig Renwick, who ran the store’s video department in the 1980s. “When he’d come in the morning and say, ‘Hey Craiggie, how we doin’?’ I’d say, ‘Where you been Sam, where you been? We’ve already sold a million!’ And he’d laugh, because it would only be 9:30 a.m. at that point.”
As precise as Sam’s memory was, the store was far from tidy. “Organized? No!” exclaims Renwick. “It wasn’t like if you walked into one of the newer stores,” such as HMV or Best Buy. While wildly popular, it was cramped and eclectic. Nooks of numerous shelves filled with record bins stretched across every square inch of the store’s back corners — more of a glorified independent bookstore than the flagship outlet of Canada’s premier record company. Sam stocked everything from Cajun Zydeco to ZZ Top to arthouse films. Popular hits filled display tables near the store’s entrance, but adventurous souls who followed the music upstairs could stumble upon sections ranging from classical to British punk.
“You could find anything there,” says Amber Scuye, a music blogger who used to make the trek from Mississauga with her high school friends in the 1990s. They’d get off at Bloor-Yonge station and walk south, dropping into Tower Records, HMV and Sunrise Records. But Sam’s was her go-to for any records she couldn’t find elsewhere.
The administration assured vinyl fans it would save the relic, but it’s taken a scandal, several years and some Toronto City Council intervention for the sign to actually near the end of its journey to restoration
“Anytime I needed something weird or I wanted a rare U.K. import that people were telling me you had to order in and charge me $28 for, I’d go to Sam’s and it’d be there for $6.99. Sam’s was the best place to go,” she recalls.
Musicians passing through Toronto were also known for ducking into the store to press the flesh with their fans — Rush and The Guess Who were known for walking into the store, catching a Sharpie thrown by a fan, and autographing posters that would hang near the door like medals. Gordon Lightfoot regularly dropped by. The Barenaked Ladies paid homage to Sam’s, “the late night record shop,” in their song Brian Wilson. Sam launched the careers of many Canadian musicians by stocking the debut records of even the then unestablished. K.d. lang, Cowboy Junkies and Ron Sexsmith all had their first records sold at Sam’s.
But anyone who remembers walking by the chain’s flagship store recalls the massive neon sign: originally just a spinning light-up vinyl record with “SAM” in massive white letters, burning its way into the retinas of anyone who stared for too long.
Evidently, Sam thought this wasn’t enough and decided to double his chances of catching errant eyeballs on Yonge Street in the 1980s by adding a second spinning record and red lettering that bragged, “That’s entertainment.”
Unfortunately, declining sales and the rise of the digital music business caught up with Sam. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2001 after being underwritten for five straight years of losses, although Sam’s sons Jason and Bobby did re-open the Yonge Street store and 11 franchise outlets across the GTA a year later. It didn’t last. On June 30, 2007, the Yonge Street store closed its doors for the last time. While the company held on by a sliver (there’s still an independent franchise store in a Belleville mall), the sign was doomed to be removed.
A public outcry on Facebook was enough to convince City Hall to put a heritage protection order on the entire building, which it revoked once Ryerson University bought the land in 2008 — on the one condition that the school protect and restore the sign. So Ryerson removed the sign, and demolished the building to make room for what is now the SLC. The sign’s fate was uncertain — even then-mayor Rob Ford piled in to try and save it. In an impassioned speech to City Hall in September 2013, he reminisced about visiting the store with his brothers back when he was a kid.
“The university has a responsibility for the restoration and the installment of that sign [on the public health building]. The challenge … is that this is a big sign.”
Originally, Ryerson promised to make “all reasonable efforts” to accommodate the sign on the SLC somewhere as a condition of purchasing 347 Yonge St. This never happened. When the SLC went up, none of the blueprints viewed by city officials or the public had any sort of space for the sign to be mounted. Toronto councillor Josh Matlow, who fought tooth and nail to preserve the sign, wasn’t convinced that the university really tried.
“There is no evidence that I saw that they made any effort to re-install the sign anywhere, as the initial remit set out,” he says. He was infuriated when Ryerson didn’t originally restore the sign as promised — and challenged several representatives from the university to show him blueprints to accommodate the sign when they arrived at a consultation meeting with City Hall. “They had nothing!” he exclaims. “It certainly came across to me … that Ryerson never really intended to fulfill the agreement in the first place. That it was an afterthought, that it wasn’t important to them.”
But since Ryerson put out a work order in February for the sign’s installation, Matlow has changed his tune. “I’m certainly more confident today, due to the fact that there are substantive actions being taken right now,” he says. “I have no reason to believe that Ryerson won’t be true to their word.”
At the time of print, the school had drafted a list of companies who could install the sign, and was trudging through the process of assigning the contract to one of these companies. According to Ryerson spokesperson Michael Forbes, an estimated date for installation will be set once the supplier is selected.
Any time you asked former president Sheldon Levy about Ryerson’s infrastructure, his response would include words like “urban centre,” “complications” and “waiting for city approval.” When it came to the numerous plans and steps for restoring the sign, the dialogue was very similar — and similarly frustrating.
“The university has a responsibility for the restoration and the installment of that sign [on the public health building]. The challenge … is that this is a big sign. Just putting up something of that weight and ensuring that it’s stable in wind conditions is no small matter,” Levy said in late 2015, estimating that the sign would go up in this academic year — a goal that seems unlikely at this point.
“There have been lots of discussion with the city about the engineering challenges of putting a sign that heavy on the building,” he explained at the time. “They are taking the leadership and we are supporting it, but we are not the ones who are putting it on our building. They’re putting it on their building.What happens when there’s big gusts of wind? They had to figure out a way to … open up the sign a bit so that the wind can blow through it. People don’t realize the size of this thing. It’s huge.”
Since it was dismantled in the fall of 2008 the Sam sign has lain in hundreds of pieces, disassembled in the back of a specially-modified tractor trailer at an external storage company somewhere in Markham. The public only knows this because Matlow demanded that Ryerson show him the sign to prove that they hadn’t damaged it in transport. Several photo-ops were done in 2012 — but aside from the still-vibrant “Save Our Sam Sign!” Facebook group, the public has almost forgotten it. Interest has been somewhat revived in the past few weeks in anticipation of the sign’s eventual installment overlooking Yonge-Dundas Square. But the PHB wasn’t the only place suggested for the sign.
A quiet, silver-haired architecture professor named June Komisar fired off a suggestion to Sheldon Levy last year. She had other ideas about the sign. Her background is in architectural history and theory, but she had a very common-sense proposal: stick the sign on 10 Dundas East or even the Eaton Centre. Ryerson’s architects never came through on their promise to incorporate the sign into the SLC — something that could have been done, according to Komisar. “Not all architects want to embrace historical artifacts, which is a shame,” she says. The blame, however, doesn’t stop with the blueprints. “Ryerson itself has a lot of responsibility to control what the architect would or would not provide for them,” she says.
Unlike the SLC, the sign’s new perch on the PHB is pretty secure for the immediate future. Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, another ardent defender of the sign, says the building isn’t being sold in the immediate future — contrary to a report by the Toronto Star that PHB’s future as a city-owned building is in jeopardy. PHB would have to be declared a surplus property by the City of Toronto in order for a sale to occur. “As far as I know, there’s absolutely no interest for the City of Toronto to sell that building,” she says. It’s safe.
Sam aficionados packed the west side of Yonge Street during Nuit Blanche of 2007. The store had already been slated for demolition by Ryerson, and while they’d promised to save the sign, the deal had yet to follow through. There was hope that the Sam sign wouldn’t be moving too far from its home on 347 Yonge Street’s second floor. As revellers chanted a countdown, the left half of the sign lit up in a dazzling display of neon. Cheers rang out from across Yonge Street, then redoubled as both sides of the sign ignited and began twirling the night away one last time. Unbeknownst to everyone, it would be at least another eight years before the sign lit up again. Toronto is waiting for Sam to return and lend its beating, vibrant heart to the downtown core. Maybe with Ryerson’s help, it won’t get lost in the noise.