I have never stepped inside Sam the Record Man, and I shamefully admit my memories of walking by the famous neon signs at Yonge and Gould are vague at best. My experience is limited to exploring my father’s record collection which he purchased at the store in the 80s, and sifting through what would be become new favourites like Bowie’s Let’s Dance and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. With this said, personal memory and collective memory are separate yet connected ideas, and while my own past does not directly intersect with the life and times of Sam the Record Man, I feel part of a collective whose past indeed does – even if those memories aren’t mine.
The issue to me is not losing the store itself. Business is a tricky endeavour, and recent high-profile examples unfortunately show that even the most profitable and high profile enterprises can fold. There are many that would like to see it in existence, and I am not diminishing those sentiments. But since it is gone, we are faced with a ‘now what?’ situation.
Well, the ‘now what?’ is what do we do with the giant neon signs. The signs are the most tangible remnants of that store, along with perhaps the records purchased from the record shop that still exist in the collections of its former patrons and the auctioned memorabilia distributed in the store’s final days. The issue is commemorating, through the signs, the importance of Sam’s and its owner Sam Sniderman in the narrative of our music and cultural history.
Many assign Ryerson University – a rapidly expanding institution and the current owners of the former site of the store – as the villains in this saga. Many lament the loss of the Yonge Street Entertainment Strip (located between Queen and Gerrard Streets), of which Sam’s was a big part of, and dismiss its current incarnation as a soulless commercial and educational strip filled with an upcoming Ryerson student buildings and a mix of big and small name shopping destinations.
For me, times change and there should be no qualms about new epochs coming into fashion. That’s fine. The fascinating thing about Toronto is its layered history. Different occupants, one after another (or sometimes at the same time), move into an area, set up their establishments, and in doing so they transform the character of their locale. This is perhaps no better manifested than in Kensington Market.
As these transformational processes take place and time, the altered urban landscapes have the power to reveal and conceal the layered history of their use. From the 1960s to about the 1990s, The Yonge Street Strip was for the most part a music and entertainment epicentre in Toronto. The sites which have contributed to this characterization have largely disappeared. Some buildings currently employ different uses (like Friars Taven at Dundas), others have been demolished completely (like the Colonial Tavern at 203 Yonge St). The loss of Sam’s and the Empress Hotel (which has quite the history itself) were the latest in this episode. The only visible reminder is Zanzibar’s, although even that has shifted identities from a music club to a purely adult entertainment establishment. Take this further and one hundred years ago the history of the Yonge Street Strip comes a bit full circle with how we might see it today. In 1912, for example, Sam’s was Curtis-Wilson Furniture Co. and Byers Albert Jefferies, Ltd., furries. 349 Yonge – Steeles Tavern, which Sam Sniderman eventually took over – was Hele’s Ceramic Art. Co. A&A at 351 Yonge was owned by Walker Frank, a man in the clothing business. In other words, this was a retail strip in its own right.
Today, the site of Sam is occupied and owned by Ryerson Univeraity – a booming educational institution that has seen tremendous growth since its days as a polytechnic. One has to guess that growing levels of enrollment within existing programs and the addition of new programs has necessitated its spatial growth, so as much as we might curse the ‘takeover’, perhaps we cannot fault that from occurring.
So the question remains: where do the signs end up? They are doing no favours to anyone stored in a North Toronto trailer.
The original plan was to have them mounted within the new student centre as a part of the deal struck by the Ryerson-Sniderman deal. Much fuss has been made about a broken promise on Ryerson’s president who has said that signs would clash with the modernist style of the new building.
Recently renewed talk has called for the need of a Toronto Museum. Whether we have the site and leadership to finally execute such a needed endeavour is another story. It does remain, however, that the neon signs would be ideal artefacts within such as a space. This would help in telling the musical and cultural narrative of Toronto as well as the role of Yonge Street.
Ideally, I’d like to see them back a part of the street, which also was the proposal put forward by Councillor Wong-Tam and supported by Mayor Rob Ford. The signs are best preserved and presented in context. Sam’s was an important part of a certain era of Yonge Street, and its signs should be displayed at its historic intersection. In doing so, in the end, we are putting them in a museum – albeit one that lacks physical plant and invites the components of the urban landscape to be the artifacts themselves.
Urban landscapes as museums are not a new idea. The Textile Museum’s mobile app TXTile City turns the city of Toronto into a museum whose artifacts are the sites – the built forms and their related oral histories — themselves. A recent TedTalk promoted the idea of the built and natural forms of Indianapolis – the city itself – as a science museum. A Toronto Star column has outlined the importance of Yonge Street. This is our Saint Laurent Boulevard of Montreal fame. Like The Main, Yonge Street, our spine, bisects the city, connects neighbourhoods, serves as cultural and commercial epicentre, and has a very layered past. In other words, it is important in the historical, geographic, cultural, natural, economic, sociological development of Toronto.
Fortunately, we already have something like what I’ve been proposing already underway. Youryongestreet is an online crowdsourcing initiative, launched by the Toronto Public Library, aimed at celebrating the history of Yonge Street. The potential age range of participants (and backgrounds in general) allows for exactly what I’ve been talking about: the presentation of the diversity of Yonge Street. The exhibits collection features a range of images, videos, audio accounts, and written tales about Yonge Street.
Youryongestreet and the urban landscape museum I have presented are two parts in an grander museum that showcases Yonge Street’s past. No doubt the Sam the Record sign should be an artefect in that museum, too.