At the heart of it all

You have them, we have them, David Hayes has them: warm memories about the old Sam the Record Man store.

Hayes is an awardwinning journalist who has written nonfiction books and articles for major publications including Toronto Life, The Walrus, The New York Times Magazine and the Globe and Mail. He has been a professor in Ryerson’s School of Journalism and teaches advanced feature writing in The Chang School of Continuing Education. Below is his wonderful essay about Sam’s that appeared in the April 1999 issue of Toronto Life.

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At the heart of it all

By David Hayes

 

In 1963, a mother took her son, a boy without any particular knowledge of what a record story should be, to the music department of  Toronto’s Simpson’s department store to buy a copy of Jimmy Gilmer’s Sugar Shack. Even at ten I remember sensing that this place, surrounded by vacuum cleaners and dresses and shoes, with an area for records set aside as an after-thought and run by stuffy, middle-aged clerks, didn’t feel right.

 

A year or so later, I was old enough to go with a friend to the downtown Sam the Record Man store for the famous Boxing Day sale to buy 12×5, the second album by The Rolling Stones. I don’t remember how I’d heard of Sam’s, but it was probably the kind of knowledge that passes through the teenage underground via “morphic resonance” – the telepathy-like process by which a few members of a species learn new skills and the rest, no matter how distant, instinctively absorb it.

 

That first visit was a revelation, better than any Christmas gift. Sam the Record Man had opened at its present 347 Yonge Street location – the one that finally closed down last June after nearly half a century – just three years earlier. Two doors down was A&A Music, its chief competitor in those days yet even then understood to be second best.

 

Sam’s felt the way a record store should, like a cluttered jobber’s warehouse, a place where people who cared about music sold records the way the ladies in the dressmaker supply shops on Spadina sold fabric, buttons and zippers. On Boxing Day, the store was jammed like the Hadassah Bazaar and the lineup ran along Yonge Street and down Gould almost to the intersection of Victoria Street. Inside, hand-lettered signs listed a mysterious and convoluted pricing system. ($7.99 discounted to $3.33. $6.99 discounted to $2.19…)

 

Long before it absorbed nearby buildings and grew to the 40,000-square-foot emporium of its glory days, Sam’s seemed huge to me. Grubby tile floors, harsh fluorescent lighting, walls covered in pegboard gaudily painted in a diamond pattern to which vinyl LPs, rising to the ceiling, were hung. (So much more romantic than small discs of injection-molded, polycarbonate plastic coated with a thin layer of aluminum – a.k.a. compact discs. And how would you hang digitally-compressed audio files?)

 

It’s nearly as famous for its sign as for its music. At one time, a neon “347” (the street address) ran vertically between two windows, flanked by a pair of neon thermometers. The names of four major record companies – RCA Victor, Columbia, Decca and Capitol – were stacked at the top (the companies paid for the privilege and the brands themselves, after decades of corporate reorganizations and mergers, sound quaint). In the late ‘60s, Sam and Jack Markle, the city’s leading sign company, created the legendary, deliciously garish pair of spinning, 45-foot-high black-and-neon records.

 

(Since the closing was announced, several Facebook groups devoted to Sam’s have been started, such as “Save the Sam’s Sign!!!”)

 

By the ‘90s Sam’s was a 140-store national chain and A&A was bankrupt. Now the competition was Music World, Wal-Mart, Future Shop and a new generation of slick, industrially-designed megastores (HMV, still half a block south of Sam’s on Yonge Street, and Tower Records which, for a short time, anchored the northwest corner of Yonge and Queen. A planned Virgin Megastore never opened its doors.) The real competition, though, was  MP3 files, Internet peer-sharing, the iPod. When my teenage great-nephews told me they’d never purchased an album, I saw Sam’s future flash before my eyes.

 

But for most of its history, Sam’s dominated the imaginations of serious music fans who valued eccentricity and tradition over efficiency. It was a chain with a heart, its floor literally creaking as I walked up and down the aisles. And I delighted in its many oddities. Like the day I found a row of Joni Mitchell CDs displayed on a floor rack in the jazz department, sitting incongruously between Mingus and Bud Powell.

 

Sam (“the Record Man”) Sniderman, who is in his early 80s today, is a local legend in the spirit of “Honest Ed” Mirvish and “Bad Boy” Mel Lastman. To the end he still walked the old tile floors. I smiled at him once, in the late ‘90s, and told him I was happy he’d never renovated the store. A smile of delight crossed his face and the gregarious Sam chatted for 20 minutes about the old days.

 

I didn’t have the nerve to tell him that as a teenager, when others were having erotic fantasies, I would dream that I’d won some kind of contest giving me an hour alone in Sam’s, free to fill a large shopping basket with as many albums as I wanted. In my dream, I prepared a long list of records and made several scouting trips to the store, mapping out the locations of the records to maximize my hour.

 

Before downloading – a marvelously efficient but, to me, soulless enterprise; the phenomenon most responsible for temporarily sending Sam’s into bankruptcy in 2001 and causing its demise now – I was one of those music geeks who walked around record stores carrying a spiral-bound notebook filled with the titles of CDs I planned to buy, subdivided into categories (rock, world, soul/R&B, country, jazz, classical). Although my music-acquiring habits have changed, I still visit HMV, along with the specialized indie music shops (like Soundscapes in Little Italy), used CD stores and a few websites. But until last June, Sam’s was always my first stop, the base camp from which I made forays into the great music-buying world beyond. (Although to be honest, since it reopened after the 2001 bankruptcy, this was mainly driven by the twin pleasures of nostalgia and habit.)

 

One day, while browsing in the blues section with my notebook, I squeezed past a guy holding a multi-page computer print-out called something like “Joe and Sally’s CD List.” We exchanged sheepish glances, like an encounter between a couple of middle-class neighbours in the local porno shop, and went about our business.

 

One evening about a decade ago, when I’d been out of town on business around Christmastime, I took a cab from the airport directly to a friend’s apartment where a party was in progress. Driving along the QEW and Gardiner Expressway, the familiar skyline – CN Tower, Rogers Centre (which I still think of as the Skydome), First Canadian Place – told me I was back in Toronto but generated no particular warmth. Driving up Bay Street, I directed the cabbie to turn east onto Elm. As we approached Yonge Street, I saw ahead of me the distinctive, two-storey, neon-lit Sam’s sign, those black platters glittering like the spirit of Christmas sales past, and I knew I was home.

 

*All serial rights owned by David Hayes, Toronto. Reprinted by permission.