Sam “The Record Man” Sniderman, 92, died Sunday, September 23, 2012. In many ways his is an all-Toronto story: born in the city, he grew up in Kensington Market and attended Harbord Collegiate. Most notably, he built his downtown Yonge Street record store into a virtual neon icon to the record, with its dual LP-shaped marquee of coloured rotating flashing lights. It defined recorded music retail for several generations of Toronto music lovers.
Let’s be clear, Sniderman was more than a mere retailer. A crucial promoter of Canadian records, his accomplishments garnered him the Order of Canada in 1976. Later he was made an inductee of the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame, the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame and in 1999 was presented with the Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism in the Performing Arts.
Sniderman’s death also reminds us of another passing: that of the record store, that physical, tactile medium of music exchange. Upon reflection I learned much about music of all kinds at Sam the Record Man (often reduced to Sam’s by his faithful customers), and I hope he made a tidy profit from my abiding love of recorded sound which teetered on obsession.
I first recall going to Sam’s with my father, a jazz lover. He bought an Ellington LP on that outing, previewing it on the store record player. It was the first time I’d heard Take the A Train. Far for being a shattering musical revelation, to my youthful avant-gardist ears it sounded very unhip, like easy-listening elevator music - remember MUZAK? Now I like to think I know better, and perhaps I do.
Whenever I had a few dollars in my pocket, I’d scratch my record itch by going down to Sams’ (and often to A & A Records, a few doors down). I figure I received an undergrad music education equivalent spending several decades on the recorded repertoire of the human race there, first on 45s and 33 LPs (‘60s to the late ‘80s), then on cassette and finally on CD.
How to describe my typical Sam’s experience? There was the thrill of the hunt, certainly. Flipping expectantly through the racks, getting my fingers dirty, was something like visiting a tactile, gritty Youtube before the internet, but with a much higher likelihood of bumping into not only music both known and unknown but also fellow music geeks. Another bonus: the promise of a much higher sonic and textual fidelity than Youtube heard over my scrappy computer speakers. There was ultimately the sweet satisfaction of possession, of finally putting “my” album into my home stereo and cranking up the volume. That was also an era when liner notes were often as not stylishly written and illustrated, an integral and important part of the album package. I still can’t bear to trash my LP copies of the Bärenreiter UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music of the World, with their large B&W photos and erudite notes.
Later, when my performances and music began to be released on commercial LP (Jon Hassell, Evergreen Club Gamelan) and a little later on CD, I’d make the trek to Sam’s second floor. It seemed important to me that “the product” was racked properly (in the front) and re-ordered if sold out. And yes, I even indulged in the guilty pleasure of the neophyte record artist: monitoring unit sales, like an anxious parent watching his baby’s first tentative steps. In retrospect, it was my way of engaging with fellow local music fans, and also of standing in a long line of recording artists whom I admired. My Sam’s visits, which started as a modest music fan and consumer, had modulated to that of an anxious but equally modest producer, each of which was, I realised, an essential side of the production-consumption coin.
At the time the word on the street was that the approachable Sniderman freely gave his expert advice and even invested in emerging Canadian musicians’ first recordings. Brian Robertson, a close Sniderman family friend and past chairman of the Canadian Recording Industry Association noted, “He was a mentor to literally hundreds of Canadian artists and musicians, and the Yonge St. record store and Sam’s presence there was the centre of the Canadian music industry’s universe for over three decades.”
Music retail went through a sea change in the 1990s, a process apparently as yet unfinished. Sniderman filed for bankruptcy and closed his store in December 2001. While he retired, his sons Bobby and Jason re-opened the store the following year, yet the losses kept accumulating. In 2007 they sold the Toronto Sam the Record Man property to Ryerson University and the building was demolished. Ryerson plans a new student centre in its stead.
End of story? Toronto forgets yet another landmark part of its cultural history? Not quite. There are evidently future plans for the old Sam’s neon sign. As a triple tribute to the physical record, to “Sam the Man” and to the store he built to serve music fans, it will fittingly be rehung, taking pride of place in the new Ryerson building.