Like a lot of Canadians, I received a lot of music music education by wandering around a Sam the Record Man store.
In my case, I’d be dropped off at the Garden City Shopping Centre in Winnipeg while my mom took my sister to music lessons. I spent untold hours flicking through the racks, watching what other people bought, examining the Top 40 singles display, and paying attention to what was playing on the store stereo. I could only afford to buy so much on the meagre amount I earned through part-time jobs, but I almost always went home with something.
There was also this magical looseleaf book on a metal stand that purportedly listed the artist, title, and catalogue number of every record in existence. Submit your request to a clerk and in a mere three to six weeks, that record would be delivered to the store.
There were maybe half a dozen of Sam’s stores in Winnipeg. I patronized them all, especially the ones at Polo Park (where I bought my first-ever 45, Joy by Apollo 100) and Unicity, a mall that was demolished long ago.
When I moved to Toronto, one of the first places I visited was the Sam’s on Yonge Street with its famous neon spinning records. Wandering around there through all the different floors was an experience. Even after the HMV superstore moved in down the street, Sam’s often had records in stock no one else did. When I was DJing club nights in places like Hamilton, I often dropped into that downtown store to see if I could pick up any new CDs to play that night. And don’t get me started on the infamous Boxing Day sales.
Sam the Record Man began as a part of Sniderman’s Radio Sales and Service at 714 College St. in Toronto, a store that opened in 1920. Sam and Sidney Sniderman convinced the family to offer up a corner of the store for records under the name “Sniderman’s Music Hall.” In 1959, business was so good that they took over the basement of Yolle Furniture on Yonge Street. Two years after that, the legendary main store opened at 347 Yonge. It sat next to the Steeles Tavern, which separated Sam’s from its biggest competitor, A&A Records.
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The store got bigger and bigger over the years. A third floor. The Third Floor Bargain Basement. There was a video department and a place to buy concert tickets. When CIBC closed a branch next door, that became Sam’s annex, housing classical records. Anyone remember Sam the Tape Man? It had its own space a few doors north and specialized in cassettes, 8-tracks, and reel-to-reel releases. And if you weren’t interested in tapes, there was Sam the Chinese Food Man upstairs. In the 1990s, Sam’s jumped into computers with Sam the Interactive Man. All stores got into selling DVDs, pre-recorded DAT tapes, and Mini-Discs. And there was Network, a free music magazine.
Problems began in the early 2000s. Maybe the chain expanded too fast. Maybe Sam’s was the canary in the coal mine that predicted the disastrous fall in physical music sales that followed the explosion of the availability of music online. Maybe Sam’s tried to be too many things to too many people. Or maybe it was the intense competition from other chains. Yonge Street, for example, once featured the greatest density of major record stores anywhere in the world between Queen and Gerrard.
Sam’s filed for bankruptcy in 2001. The roughly 130 to 140 stores began closing, whittling down to about a dozen franchise outlets, most of which were not covered by the bankruptcy. The last corporately owned store outside of Toronto — a Halifax location — shut its doors forever on Feb. 20, 2007.
The Yonge Street flagship closed forever on June 30, 2007, despite a desperate effort to keep it afloat. Ryerson University (now Metropolitan U) bought the site, tore down the store and expanded its campus with the new Student Learning Centre. The famous spinning neon signs were saved and after years in storage were installed above Yonge-Dundas Square, now called Sankofa Square.
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But not all stores gave up the ghost. Eleven franchise locations, all of which were outside the bankruptcy filing, tried to hang on. Ultimately, though, they, too, disappeared.
There was a Sam the Record Man on Exmouth Street in Sarnia that hung on until 2009. And last week, we heard that the last Sam’s in the world, a location inside the Quinte Mall in Belleville, Ontario, is to close. It’s not that the store isn’t doing well. It is. It’s just that after running the place for 45 years, the owners would like to retire.
Or is it? Spencer Destun, who owns the store as well as a couple of other shops in Kingston and Oshawa, would be very happy if his Sam’s could be sold to someone so it could stay open.
Doug Putnam, the Ancaster, Ont.-based toy mogul who bought up all the HMV leases when that company went bankrupt and turned them into successful Sunrise Records locations (and spectacularly might be interested. He also orchestrated a spectacular turnaround for the HMV brand in the U.K. What’s one more store?
It would be sad to see Sam the Record Man disappear from the Canadian landscape. Even if you thought it had already gone.
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