Councillor Josh Matlow

Saving Sam the Record Man’s Giant Spinning Discs

July 22, 2014

Mark Byrnes

CityLab at The Atlantic

Saving Sam the Record Man’s Giant Spinning Discs

A huge flashing sign from a shuttered record store in Toronto gets a new home after a lengthy preservation battle.

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A 2009 photo of Sam the Record Man’s flagship store just before the building was demolished and the signs were put in storage. (Mark Byrnes)


Surrounded by buildings as tall as they are often uninteresting, few places in downtown Toronto attracted as much attention as the stand-alone record store that once stood at the corner of Yonge and Gould Street.


Since selling its final CD in 2007, Torontonians have been waiting to find out what would happen to the flashing neon discs that used to lure them into Sam the Record Man‘s flagship store for nearly 40 years. The property’s new owners initially agreed to incorporate the storefront into their construction plans. After reneging on that promise, city officials were able to finally secure the storefront’s fate earlier this month—on top of a mid-rise tower one block away.


A nationwide chain, Sam’s was ubiquitous across Canada while it lasted. Founded by Sam Sniderman (who helped create the Junos, Canada’s music awards), the company started with a single location in Toronto in 1937 before eventually growing to more than 100 stores across Canada by the 1990s.

But like many other music retailers, changing times were unkind to Sam’s. The chain filed for bankruptcy in 2001 while managing to keep the flagship store open until 2007. Sniderman passed away in 2012. Only an independently run franchise store in Belleville, Ontario, still operates today.

The Yonge Street location that everyone remembers opened in 1961. In the middle of an active entertainment district filled with lively signage, Sam’s joined the club in 1971 when it commissioned a flashing neon sign that, when illuminated, resembled a spinning vinyl record. As Sam’s popularity grew, it expanded incrementally into surrounding properties. A second spinning neon disc was added next to the original one in 1987. If you grew up in Toronto during those years, there’s a good chance you bought an album or saw a show inside the Sam’s on Yonge street.


When Ryerson University bought the property in 2008, the institution signed an agreement with the City of Toronto saying it would preserve the beloved storefront feature and find a way to incorporate it into the student center they planned to build in its place. If such an effort wasn’t architecturally feasible, they’d be allowed to move it to the Gould Street side of the former record store.


In 2010, the neon signs had been placed in a storage facility and the rest of the building was demolished. But when Ryerson unveiled its renderings for their new student center, there were no spinning records to be found. The Snøhetta-designed proposal was unquestionably attractive, but it was just as clear that the University had no interest in incorporating the sign as agreed. “They talked about how wonderful their student center was going to be, but they didn’t demonstrate that they made their best efforts

[to keep the sign], or any at all,” says Toronto City Councillor Josh Matlow.


Music journalist and Ryerson graduate Nicholas Jennings was bothered by his alma mater’s handling of the situation. He wrote to university president Sheldon Levy, who eventually wrote back, saying that Ryerson was committed to saving the sign but that the cost was prohibitive and the signs were environmentally unfriendly. “I offered to meet with him and bring other people from the music world in to help problem solve,” says Jennings, “but never heard back.”


Jennings reached out to the music world anyway, receiving an impressive list of support from some of Toronto’s most famous artists. Statements from Gordon Lightfoot, Geddy Lee, and Leslie Feist, among others, came in last fall asking that the signage be saved. “They all felt a debt to Sam [Sniderman] because of his exemplary support of Canadian music,” Jennings tells us.


To read this article in its original form, click here.


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