You can spot the sign from the food court. In a corner of Belleville, Ont.'s Quinte Mall, past the chain stores that populate what must be every mall in Southern Ontario – a Peoples Jewellers here, a Claire's there, a Winners down the hall – are three chunky red capital letters that mark the very last outpost of a Canadian retail-music empire: SAM. A good two hours' drive east on Highway 401 from the corner of downtown Yonge Street that a chorus of spinning neon discs once lit up, in a city with a population of 49,454, is what's left of Sam the Record Man.
"I never thought that I would be the last Sam the Record Man," says Spencer Destun, 74. "We didn't plan on it." It's a wintery Tuesday afternoon, and Mr. Destun is at his desk in the Belleville store's back room, overstock CDs piled up on shelves behind him. His 41-year-old son, Krystofer, is sitting on an empty wooden LP crate, wearing one of the store's t-shirts, which feature the flagship store's façade, "THE LAST" stamped above the "SAM" in the "YES THIS IS SAM THE RECORD MAN" sign. (The shirts go for $19.99 each.) Holly Destun, 54, Spencer's wife, is out front, using a pricing gun on a stack of CDs.
It's a modest end to a chain that was anything but. Sam Sniderman started selling records out of his family's radio shop at 714 College St., near Ossington, in 1937. By the late fifties, newspaper ads with what had become Sam's trademark enthusiasm ("ANYBODY CRAZY ENOUGH CAN SELL AT THESE PRICES BUT ONLY 'SAM THE RECORD MAN' DOES!!!") were already boasting that the store had the largest record selection in the country. Then came Yonge Street: after a short stay below a furniture store at Dundas, Sam's opened up the block at Gould on Sept. 5, 1961, its sprawling interior "organized with all the finesse of a steamer trunk packed by somebody given five minutes' notice to leave the country," as Toronto Star writer Gerald Levitch put it in 1979.
But that wasn't big enough for Sam's. Jason Sniderman, who started working in his dad's store as a seven-year-old and became the company's vice-president in the eighties, says in a phone call that "the idea was to have the chain spread as widely as possible across the country." And it did: huge stores opened in cities such as Montreal, Vancouver, Halifax, Hamilton and Edmonton, and smaller ones opened everywhere. There were somewhere between 125 and 150 at the height of the chain's popularity, Mr. Sniderman guesses. "I travelled with my dad all the time," he says. "Whatever airport he was in, he was recognized as being Sam the Record Man."
As Sam's grew, so did the sleepy Canadian music industry. Before the chain took off, Mr. Sniderman remembers, "you could never contemplate a Canadian music business with people selling 10,000 records, let alone millions." But Sam Sniderman stocked locals – Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Anne Murray, the Guess Who and Buffy Sainte-Marie, to name a few – and helped change all that. "I think that's his true legacy," he says.
In May, 1979, Spencer Destun opened his first Sam's franchise store in downtown Belleville; Holly Destun was the manager. He opened a second a few years later in Trenton, Ont., then closed it and opened another in Quinte Mall in 1985. For a while, remembers Mr. Destun, "we were basically the only game in town – when I say we, I don't mean Sam's: I mean the music industry. … we had a lot of people coming into our store because they didn't have other options as to where to go and spend their entertainment dollar. It was easy that way." But by the late-nineties, music-sharing services such as Napster and competitors like HMV had left Sam's share of a shrinking market at only 9 per cent, according to Billboard magazine; it had once been 25 per cent. When Sniderman Radio Sales and Service Ltd. declared bankruptcy in October, 2001, "people would come into the store and say, 'When are you closing?' and I'd say, 'We're not closing,'" remembers Mr. Destun. (By then, the family had already shuttered the downtown Belleville store. In the 1990s, Mr. and Ms. Destun added one last Sam's, in Kingston; that, too, had since closed.) Other franchisees weren't so lucky, and by the time the last two corporate-owned stores, in Halifax and on Yonge, closed in 2007, only the Belleville and Sarnia, Ont., franchises were left. By the time Sam Sniderman died in 2012, the Quinte Mall Sam's was it.
"Even though we could probably exist by calling it something else, we would lose all the cachet that is involved in the Sam the Record Man name. Now, that cachet is quickly disappearing," Mr. Destun says. "So it's very, very important that we work at keeping this name alive." Last spring, they launched SamTheRecordMan.com, to save locals from neighbouring municipalities such as Port Hope, Bancroft and Cobourg from having to make the long trip into town. And they've started focusing on vinyl records again, since it's what twenty– and thirtysomethings have started coming back to the store to buy.
"We're carrying on an idea that seems to have had its day," Mr. Destun says. But, he adds, "we're not quite so sure we can't blend it into something else."
Still, vinyl makes up only 3 per cent of their sales; online sales account for less than 1 per cent, and it doesn't seem like many young people are buying there yet–the site's current three best sellers are 16 Biggest Hits by John Denver, 1964–1971: Very Best Of by the Rolling Stones, and 1974-1978: Greatest Hits by Steve Miller. The locals who sell in-store, meanwhile, are acts like Freddy Vette (a local DJ who fronts a fifties cover band) and Andy Forgie (a local DJ who fronts a Beatles cover band). Were it not for DVDs, "we would've been out of business five years ago, six years ago," says Mr. Destun.
Everyone is quick to point out that today is a slow day – "a snow day," says Krystofer, with a shrug – but there are more of those now than there used to be. On a good day a decade ago, the store could make 500 sales; on a good one now, they'll make 250; this day, they'll barely hit 50. "A music store is not sustainable any more," says Mr. Destun. But a Sam's, they hope, still might be, at least as long as their customers keep following the instructions on another sign that greets them just inside the store's entrance. "THANK YOU! For keeping us in business!", it reads. "Buy lots!!!"
Record Store Day – which this year sees independent music retailers across Canada and elsewhere stocking exclusive vinyl releases from artists such as R.E.M., Green Day, Bruce Springsteen and Coldplay – is this Saturday, April 19; Sam the Record Man (390 N. Front St., Belleville, in Quinte Mall) will be open 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.