Internet and a Tough Market Topple Sam the Record Man
Sam the Record Man, a fixture on Yonge Street since 1961 and once Canada's top music retailer, filed for bankruptcy yesterday, a victim of competition and a weak economy. The filing seems to doom Sam's 30 company-owned stores, including the Toronto flagship, which is to close when existing stock is sold. Reached at his home last night, founder Sam Sniderman, 81, said: "I've never been in bankruptcy, and after 63 years as far as I'm concerned Sam's is going to discontinue selling records…I'm very sad with it. It's been my baby for 63 years, and I'm very sorry."
A trustee handling the bankruptcy issued a statement saying the Sniderman family still hope the chain "will ultimately survive in a refocused form," but no reason for hope was given. Eleven franchised stores are not part of the bankruptcy. The business was squeezed by free music downloads on the Internet and rivals ranging from Wal-Mart to the specialty chain HMV, often selling hit CDs at cut rates. Loyal customer Rompin' Ronnie Hawkins said he was in mourning. "Why, Sam the Record Man is as important in the Canadian history of music as I am and all them old-timers are, you know," said the Arkansas-born rocker, who led some of Canada's great bar bands that performed on Yonge Street a generation ago. "That's where you could order those rock'n'roll records and rhythm-and-blues records in. That had never been done in Canada before… "Sam'd get stuff that he might not have in stock but he could get 'em for you eventually…These are the records I had all the guitar players listen to that were going to play in my band, with the old blues licks and stuff - Muddy Waters, early B.B. King, Memphis Slim, all that stuff."
Other long-time customers couldn't believe that Sam's was dying. "I'm absolutely shocked," said Richard Becksted, 50, who has been shopping at Sam's since the 1960s. "This is outrageous. Sam's has got the best selection. It's a gold mine for records and CDs. They've got everything - the more obscure, the better chances they'll have it."
Toronto's best-known jazz disc jockey, Ted O'Reilly of Jazz.FM91, recalled the years when Sam's emerged to challenge and defeat an older rival, A&A Records and Tapes. The two stores stood on Yonge near Dundas Street, separated only by the legendary Steele's Tavern, "where you could catch Gordon Lightfoot for the price of a beer," he said. Sam's, with its big stock and serious approach to music, "was the place where you went in Toronto for years and years to buy your jazz records," Mr. O'Reilly said.
Record producer John Norris, a former Sam's jazz-department manager, said there is still nothing else like it in Canada. "If Sam's closes, there is no major catalogue store for jazz or classical music or popular music other than the hit parade…Even today, Sam's has a much broader selection of jazz music than HMV," he said. He added: "I'm not talking about all the other ones, but if the main store closes it's going to create a serious void in the city for people who collect music on disc."
The filing marks the end of an era for the Snidermans, who have been in the record business since Mr. Sniderman began selling discs in the family's radio store in 1937. He added an outlet in a furniture store the following year and began to create a chain through franchising in the late 1960s. "It's a real Canadian institution," retail consultant John Williams said. "It was the first national chain for music and, for a long time, a living legend but this is an industry under siege from all quarters."
He said free downloading still flourishes despite the high-profile court closing of the Napster music-sharing site and has had a punishing impact on conventional music sellers. Mail-order music clubs such as Columbia House and music e-tailers, including the mighty Amazon.com, have also taken away a good chunk of business from Sam's, he said. Meanwhile, large discount retail chains such as Wal-Mart and Zellers constantly use CDs as loss leaders to attract shoppers.
By Marina Strauss and John Saunders