24 November 2017




Stop for a moment and think of Toronto. Which images flitted across your subconscious? Were they different today because you were conscious of the process? Are there specific things you think about every time you conjure the city? Two of the most prevalent images of Toronto that continually pop up for me are these (and I'm certain I'm not alone in this):

Of the gazillion pictures of the Sam the Record Man sign and Honest Ed's, I chose the above images because they remind me of what it was like as a child visiting the city from the eastern suburbs. My family and I weren't so far away, and traffic in the GTA was MUCH better in the 1990s, so we would  pop into Toronto fairly often. One of the best parts of these day trips was the drive home, where my parents would detour through busy streets so we could drive a bit slower and see a bit more of the city before we got back on the highway. These pictures are not far off from what it was like driving by those signs.

Then this happened...

And this:

Those signs were such an integral part of Toronto's history, and made such an impression on people visiting the city for the first time. It wasn't even about the stores themselves for me, though I'm sure it was for many other people. For me it was about the experiences I connected to those signs, partly because the signs are by definition advertisements, and marketing is all about positive associations. 

A few years ago The Atlantic published an article called "Why Good Advertising Works (Even When You Think It Doesn't)" that discussed the subtle ways that advertising influences people over the long run. I really liked this bit:

                                         Successful advertising rarely succeeds through argument
                                         or calls to action. Instead, it creates positive memories and
                                         feelings that influence our behavior over time to encourage
                                         us to buy something at a later date. No one likes to think that
                                         they are easily influenced. In fact, there is plenty of evidence
                                         to suggest that we respond negatively to naked attempts at

We consciously resist people's blatant attempts at telling us how to live our lives. But how are we to curate our lives without outside influences? People who struggle with mental illness know all too well that our brains are constantly searching for connections. Everything is a trigger, and the joy and tragedy lie in distinguishing which we subconsciously favour. Some people are blessed with a healthy balance of good and bad memories, some are extraordinarily blessed with mostly good ones, and some people suffer through an incessant shuffling of the worst moments of their existence. Huge signs like Sam the Record Man and Honest Eds weave themselves into our lives at various points, happy and sad. In a life where we are at once privileged and robbed of real autonomy, we can look at an iconic sign and choose which memories and associations we want to revisit.

Were we gloriously frittering away our youth with friends?

Were we buying music after a long, cold day?

I've written about the allure of nostalgia before, but this is different. This is local history, and how we as citizens and visitors of Toronto conceptualize and define a location that is always changing. There is indeed a market for pointless nostalgia, but people genuinely cared about preserving both of those signs as part of our shared cultural heritage. Ryerson has plans to mount the Sam the Record Man sign near Yonge and Dundas again, and there are plans to move the Honest Ed's sign to the Victoria Street entrance of the Ed Mirvish Theatre. 

Watching our city evolve so rapidly brings to the surface our underlying unease about change and our own mortality. Those signs were seen as permanent fixtures of Toronto, so how should we then define a city that changes what is part of its core essence? Witnessing the end of an era is scary because it means that we have crossed over from one era to the next, and that we are getting older. But if we move forward with an eye on the past, we have the opportunity to change our perspective in exciting ways. 

I'll bid you farewell with a poignant quote from The Birth House by Canadian author Ami McKay, "...if you don't talk to your ghosts from time to time, they'll make you crazy." 


Hollis, Nigel. "Why Good Advertising Works (Even When You Think It Doesn't)." The Atlantic, August 31, 2011. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/08/why-good-advertising- works-even-when-you-think-it-doesnt/244252/.

McKay, Ami. The Birth House. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2006.


  1. Your piece is interesting; the commercialization of signs and of a cities past. The urban landscape changes rapidly. What we think of as a urban landmarks, is really just either accidental survival or citizens activism in getting in the way of change. The collection of pieces of a city to maintain a local, maybe personal/emotional, connection to the past is fascinating phenomenon.

  2. I agree, especially with your point about landmarks surviving accidentally. I think it's difficult for cities and individuals to predict what will be most missed when things inevitably change. The emotional connections we have with various landmarks is a tricky landscape to navigate.