The Arty Semite

'Sam the Record Man' Sign Returns to Toronto

By Michael Kaminer

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Rush frontman Geddy Lee called it “an important fixture on Toronto’s musical landscape.” Singer Feist wrote of the “importance of commemorating and protecting” it. Crooner Anne Murray called it “an integral part of music history in Canada.”

Now, after years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white Sam the Record Man sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch.

Toronto’s City Council voted recently to install the sign on the roof of the city-owned Toronto Public Health building, steps from where the retail chain’s flagship location once stood, Toronto’s City News reported.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the sign for generations of Canadians who cherished Sam’s as a scrappy homegrown haven for music lovers. As the chain grew to 140 stores nationwide, the sign also came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses. Sam Sniderman died in 2012 at the age of 92.

Torontonians had worried the historic sign might disappear after Ryerson University, which purchased a bundle of properties from the Snidermans, wavered over installing it at its original location. A Facebook page called SOS: Save Our Sam the Record Man Sign attracted nearly 2,000 “likes” and plenty of celebrity endorsements.

Ryerson will instead mount a plaque commemorating Sam’s at the address where the store once stood. A motion proposed by Jewish city councilor Josh Matlow will compel future owners of the Toronto Public Health building to maintain the sign.

“We had said all along that we were putting the sign back up,” Michael Forbes, a Ryerson University spokesman, told the Forward. “We could have done a better job of communicating that. But there were loud voices expressing concerns, and I think that got amplified. One legislator even said the sign was thrown away. We took him to see it.”

The sign “is the only remnant of my father’s legacy,” Robert Sniderman, the eldest son of Sam the Record Man founder Sam Sniderman, told the Forward. “The community — actually, the whole country — spoke out because they felt so connected to that business, which was probably the most significant and identifiable retail business in the country. There was hardly a person you could speak to who didn’t have a story about the store.”

Sam the Record Man had roots in a tiny general store run by Sam Sniderman’s mother on College Street in what was then Toronto’s Jewish ghetto. “The original function of that property was for cinema machines,” Robert Sniderman explained. “You’d put a penny in and watch a movie, which was thousands of cards on a scroll. The store evolved from that, then moved into appliances. But the purpose when it started was to provide entertainment for Jewish community.”

The business moved further downtown in 1958, then to the famous flagship location on Yonge St — Toronto’s main drag — in 1961. The sign went up around 1969, Sniderman said.

The signs itself shone as a tourist attraction in Canada’s largest city, Sniderman recalled. “The sign was very representative of downtown Toronto,” he said. “It was such an attraction. People made a point of wanting to see it. It was about my father, my family, and the business, but the community adopted it as well.”

The sign’s installation atop a tower in downtown Toronto — just blocks from the chain’s cavernous flagship — will be overseen by Ryerson, which bought a package of property from the Sniderman family in 2008 for $40 million. The school is building a library, classrooms, and program space on the sites. Ironically, Robert Sniderman now owns a restaurant that will sit in the sign’s shadow on nearby Victoria St. — The Senator, Toronto’s oldest eatery.

“I’m very happy to see the signs go back up,” said Sniderman, who shepherded the chain’s growth after taking over franchise operations in 1968. “I grew up working in the family business, wrapping records every Saturday as a child. My entire life’s work was associated with that family business.”

Ryerson will announce a date for the installation once engineering reports around the project are completed, its spokesman said.


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