The Great Record Stores: Sam The Record Man

The twilight of Sam, 2001

The twilight of Sam, 2001

The other day I was writing about the Canadian band Blue Peter and of course I mentioned their keyboardist Jason Sniderman. Jason was the son of famed Canadian businessman Sam Sniderman, who owned the utterly iconic Sam The Record Man store on Yonge Street. Actually, he owned the chain, but this was the store, as the photo above demonstrates. I can never forget the first time I went to Sam.

It was 1992, and I was taking a Canadian vacation with an acquaintance of mine. I flew into Montreal and then we drove to Toronto, stopping along the way for a visit in Ottowa. As you may imagine, we hit record stores in each town along the way! This was my first time out of The States and buying music, so I was buying first and asking questions later. Buying records on the internet was a few years away and I was all about mail order to get records that didn’t filter down to sleepy Central Florida. This was way more fun!

Along the way, I phoned Ron “The Man” Kane for Francophile advice along the way, but once we hit Toronto, I was more than amazed by the insane volume of stuff crammed into Sam The Record Man. The photo above does it no justice while showing off the animated neon sign to excellent advantage. The part of the store depicted there is approximately 55% of the whole enchilada. As you can see below, the store encompassed a substantial portion of the block at the corner of Yonge and Gould Streets. Originally, Sam only consisted of less than half of the corner plot, but over time, they absorbed the large rival A&A Records [where the large neon records were] while also absorbing the tavern that was in between the two vinyl rivals.

The full Sam monty…

The full Sam monty…

Given that it was the summer of 1992, I was not quite to the cusp of my renewed interest in vinyl. So all that I bought there were CDs and VHS tapes of a few music acts. True, they had laserdiscs there, but nothing that I needed in the Record Cell. As you can tell by the photos, this complex held an insane number of square feet and in 1992, about 40% of it was still vinyl. But movies, sheet music, periodicals, and records dominated the retail space. This was an era when record store still held their own and one didn’t need to prop up stores with pop culture tschatchkes to keep them viable*. And Sam was the mother of all record stores. My hayseed eyes had never seen anything of its like until then.

* Feel free to spit in disgust at this notion…

As you can tell, it was a multi-story building, and being inside Sam was like being in an M.C. Escher-esque record funhouse. It was impossibly crammed with merchandise to the point where it began to reach something like whiteout conditions to one’s senses. It’s hard to describe, but there were floors constructed between floors to increase the sales space! The taller building had a two story mezzanine, but before the second floor was reached on the stairway, there was a partial platform half the way up, taking up a portion of the air above mezzanine floor space where another floor [floor 1.5?] had been jammed in, so as to waste as little of the unused mezzanine airspace [for want of a better word] as possible! I hope that makes sense. I’d been in the occasional Tower Records but this was whole new realms of awesome.

Sam Sniderman on the second floor © Graham Bezant

Sam Sniderman on the second floor © 1976 Graham Bezant

Naturally, being that the time was 1992,  I had high earnings and low expenses, so I bought many hundreds of dollars worth of music there. All of it material that I’d have been hard pressed to have found in the Lower 48! It was during this trip that I had come to love the city of Toronto. It had the energetic, cosmopolitan vibe of New York City, but was populated by Canadians. If you’ve not had the pleasure, befriend some Canadians today. They will enhance your life! But back to my point; I flew home from that vacation with a suitcase jam packed with media! I couldn’t wait to go back again, so in the fall of 1992, I made another trip to Toronto! The second time I bought several dozen more CDs but avoided the vinyl yet again. This would come to haunt me in later years. Little did I know, that my next trip to Sam would take many years <INSERT 9 YEAR GAP>

My third and final trip to Sam The Record Man came in the dark days of December, 2001. My wife was attending a seminar in Toronto and I was excited to go back to Sam once more after a long break. It was just after the World Trade Center attack, so you can imagine how much fun that made air travel. But there were other dark forces on the horizon, bent on attacking my chosen way of life. Peer-to-Peer networks. Napster. File sharing. The once mighty Sam was reeling from the onslaught. By this time, I had done my 180 on vinyl, and obtaining vintage Post-Punk vinyl was the laser-like focus of my purchasing as it had been from as early as 1993, scant months after my twin trips to Toronto. My mind reeled as I contemplated all of the New Wave vinyl that must have been packed into Sam on my first two visits! I had been such a bloody fool!!

Boxing Day feeding frenzy at Sam

Boxing Day feeding frenzy at Sam

But this time the sad remnants of King Vinyl® were the picked over remains of trash vinyl that no one had wanted to buy over the last prior 30 years. In 2001 vinyl was completely off the map and had yet to become ironically hip. There was no vinyl in the store with my name on it, and once again, I found myself buying only CDs, though a darned sight fewer than in years previous. Fortunately, I hit many small record stores in Toronto on this last trip, and I had managed to find many delightful parts of my collection in stores that may have had no name at all. But in 2001, Sam was still the 800 lb. gorilla of music retailing and it remained a force to be reckoned with. I would admonish anyone going to Toronto that they should experience Sam.

But the writing was on the wall. Sam went online with a webstore in 2001. Too little, too late. They probably should have had one by 1996, but the culture of paying for music had been dealt a deathblow by this time. In 2002, Sam filed for bankruptcy. And by 2007, it had closed for good. In recent years, the site was demolished to sell the property to Ryerson University to expand their campus there. But not before the iconic neon sign was put into storage for eventual re-emergence as part of Canada’s cultural heritage. But as of 2013, the sign has yet to be seen again. There remains a single former store of the Sam franchise still open for business in Belleville. We cannot take the presence of giants in our midst, as was Sam, for granted. For one day, even giants fall.

Hell on earth. The space where Sam the Record Man used to be.

Hell on earth. The hole where Sam the Record Man used to be.

– 30 –

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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7 Responses to The Great Record Stores: Sam The Record Man

  1. ronkanefiles says:

    It was a truly great store. I think Rasputin in Berkeley was modeled after Sam The Record Man’s Yonge Street store – though not nearly as big! You’d have to go to Tokyo to find a music retailer as big as Sam!

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  2. Bpdp3 says:

    I don’t really recall how I got to this post in the rabbit hole, but what a nice memory this was. I was in this very store at least twice in my life, the last time being 1986.

    I’m certain of the year because I bought the brand new ‘God’s Own Medicine’ lp by the Mission which was a total blind purchase. They had a display sign on it that read ‘God may no longer believe in them, but we do!’ (Referencing the spoken intro to lead off track ‘wasteland’ for the uninitiated).

    The first time I was there was probably around ‘82. Can’t recall the purchases 16 year old bpdp3 made. Oh to be able to go back in that store circa 1982 knowing what I know now (and having a credit card!) What a feast for the eyes that place was.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Bpdp3 – Wow, you were there twice. I was lucky enough for three visits. Two in 1992 and one in 1999. In 1992 I was not buying vinyl…yet. That would happen in 1993 when I realized that I should be grabbing vinyl rarities that may not make the leap. But my goodness, what a space that place was! I can only imagine what vinyl I simply ignored in that store on the 1992 visits! [bangs head against wall] In 1982, when you made your first visit… my mind melts down when I think of what must have been packed into that store! Still, at least we have memories.

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  3. Norm says:

    Growing up in Toronto, Sam’s was a big part of my life. I remember going there on Saturday afternoons with my father in the early 60s, later on making pilgrimages there from the suburbs on weekends and after concerts and hockey games and then finally working there through most of the 70s. Sam’s had a vast collection, probably one of the biggest in the world and he was ever expanding. You are partillly correct on his expansion, He took over what was once Steele’s Tavern, but not A&A’s to the north. He went the other way and took over the bank to the south and he had previously taken over the space behind it. Prior to that, he opened Sam the Tape Man with Sam the Chinese Food Man in a spot just north of A&A’s. When he expanded into the bank’s space, he moved the tape store down to the section behind what was once the bank. He also had a pretty large warehouse a few blocks to the east on Church Street called Roblan’s Distributing (named after his son Rob and his brother and business partner Sid’s daughter Lana). Roblan’s kept his overstock and also serviced his network of franchises. I was told I was the first one ever to come in with a resume when I applied to work there in about 1972. I started in the 45 department at Roblan’s and quickly moved over to the Yonge Street store in the “hit parade” section and eventually became one of the night manager’s. Sam’s was open for 8 am to midnight 6 days a week and noon to 8 on Sundays. It was a wild part of town then with lots of bars and clubs and there was always something going on. There was a seedy side to Yonge Street to that often came out at night. I worked there on and off for 6 or 7 years amassing a pretty significant record collection in the process, a lot of which was sold around 1980, but I have more than made up for it. I was sad to see it go!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Norm – Welcome to the comments! Wow, those are some insider tales! I had no idea of how much Sam’s empire sprawled. Sam The Chinese Food Man??! The mind boggles! I feel privileged to have visited Sam The Record Man on Yonge Street as many as three times, given that i grew up in Central Florida.

      A seedy side to Yonge Street??! You don’t say? I’ve heard that there’s a rainbow in Toronto, where the Maritimers are bold. They always get a potful…but never a pot of gold!

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