Nostalgic for Sam: The Circulation of Consumption A Short Story about a Long Empire
“I do reminisce with friends about Sam’s and our teen-aged visits to ‘the city’ of which Sam’s was an important part. The whole Yonge Street strip really is tinged with nostalgia” -Dawn the Librarian

On a routine basis, Dawn would step off the Subway at Bloor an Yonge Station with the same intentions as many esoteric fans felt during the era of Sam the Record Man. Dawn, a current librarian, worked at a suburban Sam the Record Man location, but she would make a trip into the city to visit the well known record store. Sam the Record Man was Dawn’s temple, and Neil Young was her god. As Dawn walked along, she couldn’t help but notice how class-est Yonge Street really was. In Dawn’s mind when contrasting Yonge’s grubby appeal, she thought the Eaton Centre was “glitzy, multistory, light filled, Canada geese art space, giant commercial…blah versus all those little venues that sold the most bizarre things,” like t-shirt and poster shops. Dawn remembers the store as always being tacky, and “grubby,” but that was part of its attraction. It was almost anti-retail when compared with shiny, “glammed out” shopping destinations, like the Eaton Centre. But it was still cool. This is Dawn’s story of her shopping experiences and the irony that the record store she once worked for will become part of a library, which reflects her current career.

As Dawn walked into the record store, she anticipated the chaotic layout, dusty shelves, and bargain bins. Despite the unattractiveness of it all, “the store was so not HMV. It was weird and grubby, and there were all these hand made signs,” which strengthened its unique identity. The hectic layout of the store would leave consumers feeling confused of where that cherished record was, so they would have to ask an employee for help. Dawn remembers the employee who worked in the classical music section, Friedrich, who knew everything. When she would pick up an order Friedrich would ask “are you sure the customer wants that one, because this version is better!” Although it wasn’t a job requirement, the staff would be very knowledgeable of their material and would find whatever the customer was looking for. Sam Sniderman himself would come out to help his customers find what they needed.

Once you’ve caught the music bug, you eat and sleep it. A trip downtown for Dawn also included visiting used record stores, but Sam’s was the center of it all. She had to go there. Customers would go to HMV to check the price of a record, followed by visiting Sam’s, and if there wasn’t much difference then they would buy there. This is because it was the store they went to all their life. If there was a big difference, in a very guilty manner the customers would slink back to HMV and buy something. Inevitably, if it was something cool that HMV wouldn’t have and Sam’s would. But the day’s of Sam the Record Man slowly declined because they continuously lost the price battle and in addition the mainstream stores, like HMV, would carry more of a selection on a given product instead of many one-offs.

While working at Sam’s, Dawn always saw similarities between Sam’s and a library, but when she made the transition into becoming a librarian, it became even more evident that the two jobs were not so different.  When Dawn worked at the record store, she always had the impression she was working at a library. The organizational principles of record stores and libraries are similar in the way they are codified and have hierarchies. Employees could ‘name of the artist’ know price and inventory information. Because they knew how to read labels and codes, their work paralleled a library’s structure of secret information.

Music lends itself to the codification and Dawn reflected that it wasn’t strange to leave the retail world of music and a record store to a library. She states, “Personally, I think its pretty cool how the rhythm of a music store turning into a library echos my personal path, the main store looked more like a library.” There is a formality in what we think of the knowledge economy and what we think of libraries and people studying and learning and exchanging ideas. At a traditional university, there is ivy and stone and green grass but it comes with weight and attitude and prejudice. When a library is at store front, it is acknowledged that its institutionalized and it doesn’t hold up the prejudice that education is out of reach.” When Dawn would visit Yonge Street, she was never really aware that, at the time, Ryerson Polytechnic Institute was there, unless she caught a glimpse of students piling in and out. As a passerby, Dawn was not impacted that a educational institution was the backdoor neighbor to her musical temple.

Institutions valued by its users leaves its mark when taken down by gentrifiers. The way Sam’s left its mark by giving memories to its loyal customers is the same way the new Learning Centre will impact the lives of the students and public who will gain knowledge and exchange accessible information. Sam’s time had come and gone. As Dawn reflects on Joni Mitchell’s phrase “You don’t know what you’ve got until its gone,” she will miss the place as a part of her youth, as part of her early working life, and as a place she knew as a shared experience. She hopes Ryerson kicks new life into that corner and re-defines the whole location. Dawn thinks Ryerson’s plans to develop the site is terrific and she would love the idea of a library (or Learning Centre) right at street level at one of the busiest corners of the city.

Dawn who used to travel to Sam the Record Man, would never have guessed that her musical shrine would become the extension of Ryerson’s library; which transformed from a Polytechnic institution to a full functioning university which will be showcased on the face of Yonge Street. Toronto has definitely changed over the years, but will maintain the purpose of shared experiences, exchange of information and overall becoming a valued memory.

[The content in this story is taken from an interview with Dawn, the librarian]



About Ryerson On Yonge

A course in the Faculty of Arts, we have been studying the history of the neighbourhood around Yonge and Dundas, and Ryerson campus, in order to consider the social context and cultural importance of the new Student Learning Centre, which will occupy 341 through 355 Yonge Street. This blog is not an official Ryerson publication, and is a student-composed analysis of campus and its neighbourhood.
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3 Responses to Nostalgic for Sam: The Circulation of Consumption

  1. Pingback: Making Ryerson Yonge | Ryerson On Yonge

  2. Pingback: Making Ryerson Yonge | Ryerson On Yonge

  3. Pingback: Coming Together at Yonge and Dundas: Liberation, Subcultures, and Media. | Ryerson On Yonge

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