Wiscasset

Maine's Iconic Big Al's Super Values Shutting Down at Year's End; Al Cohen Explains

"The toughest thing will be to close, not that chapter but that book in my life, because this has been building a book," Big Al said in an interview

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A Maine institution is ending a three-and-a-half decade run this year. At the end of 2021, Big Al's Super Values Store in Wiscasset will shut down.

Owner Al Cohen -- "Big Al" -- says a combination of being unable to hire a full staff because of the pandemic, a desire not to overwork his body and joints, additional pandemic regulations on businesses and the prevalence of online shopping are among the reasons he decided now was the time to close.

"My business is drastically different than it was two years ago," he said in an interview Friday.

"I'm down to a crew of 11, a lot of them part-time," he said of his current staff, which pre-pandemic was 21 employees. More were full-time and the store operated every day of the week for more than 11 hours a day.

The store is now back open all week but only for eight hours each day and has traditionally closed in January and February each year.

"We're losing three-and-a-half hours a day, which is a lot money at the end of the week," Cohen said.

The story of Big Al's begins in the mid-1980s, when Cohen said he "knew it was time to do something different than live in New York."

Cohen's original plan was to start a "mini-storage" business in Maine, because land was going for "$3,000 an acre."

But when he got to Wiscasset, the store that became Big Al's came into focus.

"I started knowing the general merchandise business and, back in '85, it was the beginning of Walmarts and Home Depots, there were lots of bankruptcies, lots of little people who went out of business, so I went from a bankruptcy to bankruptcy and bought stuff," he explained.

Thirty-five years on, that "stuff" still lines the long aisles of the discount outlet and makes appearances in infamous TV ads.

Cohen said his TV life began "probably around 1991 or 1992, when a local cable salesman kept coming in, trying to convince me to do cable ads."

"Eventually, he said he'd shoot an ad for me and run it free of charge. I didn't like his script and I just did it ad-lib," he explained.

Cohen estimates he's now graced 50 or so ad-libbed spots, many of them wearing a trademark shirt with an animal on it, work pants and suspenders printed with a ruler pattern, an outfit he says he wears everywhere, all the time.

"If I go on a cruise ship, if I go somewhere, you know what I'm going to look like -- exactly like this. Some people will stare at me, I don't give a s---," Cohen said.

While Big Al is looking forward to the chance to get some more rest, he is also sad and sentimental that the store is now in its final days.

His customers, whether they're tourists who make annual trips while in town or locals who come once a week, feel the same way.

"I'm going to miss it," said Emilie Estes of Scarborough, Maine, who was shopping there on Friday.

"It'll be a big loss for Wiscasset," echoed Trudy Metzger, a seasonal Maine resident and Big Al's shopper from Titusville, Florida.

Cohen is hopeful that the high demand for employees at many Maine businesses will help his workers find new careers shortly after Big Al's shuts down.

He also believes he will stay somewhat busy, since he will continue to operate the fireworks store adjacent to Big Al's Super Values and will still participate in numerous charities, which have become as much a part of Cohen's public identity as his store.

"I'd love to spend more time at the food bank. I enjoy the time I spend there," he explained.

Asked if he had any advice for people thinking about operating a business, Cohen replied, "Decide what you want to do, make sure you'll be happy doing it, go after it like a bulldog and, if something, gets in your way, don't accept 'No,' just keeping pushing in the direction you want to be in."

While that direction has now taken Big Al toward leaving his store "on top," he says the actual decision to close and the actual act of closing the business, when it comes, are the hardest part of moving on.

"The toughest thing will be to close, not that chapter but that book in my life, because this has been building a book," he said.

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