Monday, September 24, 2012



I knew Sam Sniderman before he was Sam The Record Man. And then there was the other side beyond records and music -  his love of the downtown city and of old days along College St.
I don't know who told me 60 years ago but I heard that the place to buy really different records was Sniderman's Music Hall on College St.
So I made the long TTC trek from Weston Rd. near Lawrence to Sam's first music store on the stretch of College west of Bathurst,  familiar to such famous Torontonians as Ed Mirvish, Johnny Lombardi and Mel Lastman.
It was his brother's radio store but Sam, who already had lost his hair, sold me a Stan Kenton Innovations in Modern Music record. I had only change for money in those days, and no record player, but I still have that record.
I attended Ryerson Institute of Technology before Sam moved to Yonge and Gould in 1959. That stretch of our old main street was dominated then by A and A, which had a soda fountain at the back behind the stands filled with texts we needed at Ryerson. It was the first Ryerson book store.
There was rivalry but Sam became the dominant figure at the corner, and in records, because he was a showman, a great supporter of Canadian talent, and he could be crotchety as hell in arguments. He was larger in life than his huge neon signs.
I remember him calling me up at the old Toronto Telegram when I covered City Hall to complain about stupid city bureaucrats and not being able to be open on Boxing Day. And that was the start of many calls over the years dealing with everything from garbage collection in the lane behind his store to the plight of the homeless, one of whom froze to death near his back door and caused him to attack everyone in sight for the savage irony of someone freezing in the downtown of a bustling city.
Sam was one of my more difficult friends. He disagreed with everything I said and wrote and would start a call with "you know Downing, you really screwed up....." and you can fill in the rest because it seemed to Sam that I was wrong, and my papers were wrong, and my friends were wrong, on just about anything.
Sam had a great friend, Derwyn Shea, and he was a fixture at any party that the Anglican canon (and former councillor and MPP) had at his nice house on the western height above Grenadier Pond. And when you came in the door, or the Fileys or Garricks or other threads of the rich city tapestry showed up, Sam was sure to greet you with a quip, a beef and his latest scheme.
He was a great fan of the Canadian National Exhibition and of course would have fit right in at any booth on the Midway. We sat together on CNE boards and committees and argued over his great idea that the fair should be free and we would get the money back on sales. We would point out to him that the millions that we raised through selling tickets was useful in running the fair, but we could never convince him.
In the final days a decade ago, the record chain ran into the vinyl wall of modern competition, and all the music that people could steal instead of flipping through the bins at his creaky music Mecca.
He retreated to the Maritimes and a wine business. Ryerson got his huge neon sign and the Ex has a smaller sign which has yet to be hung on a wall of honour. Ryerson hasn't put its sign up either.
He may have been gone after nine decades from the city life and the calls became few indeed. But Sam really was an original, much more than a record huckster, a giant of his craft, and a mentor and supporter to many.
The legends like Gordon Lightfoot remember his support in their lean days. Lightfoot basically played for beer money at Steeles, a second floor tavern just over from Sam's. Ryerson students used to listen to Lightfoot and nurse their drinks. Around 1960, it would not have been a rare sight to see Lightfoot performing, and in the audience would be Neil Young and his father, Scott Young, the author and famous sports journalist, and Sam.
The old record business may be gone, just like Tin Pan Alley. As ancient history as the little booths that we used to  play a 78 in before we bought it.  But the thousands with pleasant memories of the great gabber, Sam The Record Man,  will remember him long after new technology will no longer play the records that he peddled with such enthusiasm.
He was an original. No greater tribute can be made

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