Sign O’ The Times

Would you feel a sense of loss at the removal of a billboard? How about a store sign? What if it were huge and neon and had been there for 40 years?

There is an outcry over the closing of the flagship store of Sam the Record Man in Toronto, once the largest music retailer in Canada. But it is not the store’s closure that has people upset, but the loss of the massive sign depicting two spinning records. As soon as the announcement was made, Facebook pages and online petitions immediately sprang up, asking for the sign to be saved, designated a heritage site or to be preserved in a new location. All of this for an advertisement for a failed business.

I won’t deny the sign is a presence at its Yonge St. location. It has appeared in the backdrop of many a Hollywood film trying to pass Toronto off as some other city. It also played a significant part of the 1970 Canadian film Goin’ Down the Road, where the movie’s two hosers become entranced with big city living.

But does that make it a landmark? Some of the comments said tearing it down is akin to taking down the CN Tower, claiming it is just as recognizable a landmark for the city. This I seriously doubt. Many others who commented spoke of buying their first record/cassette/CD at the store, but that’s just nostalgia for their youth. Like them I also remember the first album that I bought with my own money (Depeche Mode’s Some Great Reward, if you must know) but I don’t fetishize the store I purchased it at.

It is just a sign. Sure, it looks interesting, but it is an advertisement and more will come and go in that place. Just down the block from the store is a public square that is rapidly being filled with flashing billboards and electronic signage, turning it into a miniature Times Square, the ultimate example of signs as culture. This is not a compliment. Once you’ve been to Times Square and marveled at how insanely bright it is (even in the dead of night) and thought of all the movies and TV shows you’ve seen it in, there is really little other appeal. The same goes for the Sam’s sign. At worst people will lose the chance to say “Hey, there’s that sign that I’ve seen in the background of a film before. Cool.”

It is interesting to note that most people are looking to save the sign and not the store or the line of business it represents. If but a small percentage of the people pining for the sign’s iconic status had regularly purchased music from the store, the sign wouldn’t be in jeopardy today.


  1. AnonymousJune 04, 2007

    I've never been to Toronto so I've never seen the signs but I do remember Sam the Record Man. When I was in highschool, that was THE place to shop at. Not to mention that I discovered more than a handful of great Canadian indie bands in their underground section.

    I miss that shop.

  2. In some respects I can understand people in Toronto wanting to save the "Sam the Record Man" sign. It would seem to have some sentimental value. But then I have to wonder why they didn't try to save the store before it was too late? Perhaps if they had paid more visits to Sam the Man instead of buying music online or at WalMart? It's sad to say, but the blame for so many of the great businesses of the past closing often rests with ourselves.

  3. Quite frankly, the Sam's sign has been around a lot longer than the CN Tower, and given a choice, I'd prefer to keep the former over the latter.

  4. Sam's may have been a great chain - and it was the only one I knew of for years - but these days it will soon be a chain of two from the original 130. But the music industry has changed and Sam's went down for the count, as much to downloads as any other retailer. Though I would say HMV was more of a culprit than WalMart.

    As you say Mercurie, people stopped buying and down went the chain. I'm not shedding a tear - I hadn't bought from them in years and I still buy CDs and passed by there all the time. I get that people are sentimental about the sign, but it was just a store. Paul, do you really think the sign should be saved?

  5. I'm actually with Paul. When I heard the story, the thing I was saddest about was that sign. I actually DO still shop there, so I'm not one of the ones who helped put it under (I don't download music, and buy lots of TV DVDs, too).

    But Sam's has a lot of culpability, too. People aren't mentioning that a couple of years ago they declared bankruptcy, taking all the stock with them. Then they reopened, never paid the creditors, and kept the stock. Sonic Unyon and several other music labels almost went under because Sam's owed them so much. Think Chapters and what they're doing to the publishing industry right now.

    But all that said, Sam's once stood for something. Maybe not the version of Sam's that stands there now, or has stood there for the past 10 years, but in the early 90s it was the place I went to over every other place on that strip, and I drove from London once a week to go there. My dad went to Ryerson and still remembers going in there every Monday to pick up records from unknown artists like Jimi Hendrix, with Sam standing there handselling them.

    The thought of those records no longer spinning -- and my daughter never seeing that landmark -- saddens me.

  6. I'm sure you and Rob actually helped keep Sam's going for a few years on your purchases alone.

    Gill told me about the bankruptcy and said she heard a lot of bad stories about their business practices while she was covering the story.

    They were a great store at one time, but that time is gone and both Syd and Tristan will have their own icons to treasure.