Big Al Cohen in Wiscasset.

Big Al’s in Wiscasset will close by the end of the year. The store is known, in part, for its colorful owner, Al Cohen, and the variety of discounted merchandise it offers along Route 1.

“Big Al,” as he’s known locally, is known for his ape shirts, measuring tape suspenders and eye-catching commercials that promise the store is “the place to be.” The store sells a mix of items ranging from craft and school supplies to clothes, holiday decorations and Maine souvenirs, among other trinkets.

Cohen said a shortage of employees during the COVID-19 is the main cause for the closure, but the increasing number of department stores to compete with didn’t help.

“We opened 35 years ago. Back then, we didn’t have Walmarts,” said Cohen. “It’s a whole different world now.”

The store needs 20-22 employees to operate at its best, Cohen said, but currently, he has only 11, half of whom are part-time. Though he’s had a help wanted sign in the window for months, Cohen said he only received five applications in six months, most of which didn’t result in a hire. Additionally, the damage the pandemic caused his business was immediately noticeable, he said.

Every year, his store closes for about two months from the beginning of January to the beginning of March.

“When I closed just before the pandemic in January 2020, everything was very good,” he said. “When we re-opened that year on March 12, I had my whole crew, but we closed 8-days later because of the pandemic. I had some older employees and I wanted to protect them. When we re-opened two and a half months later, I had five employees.”

Before the pandemic, Cohen said the store was open for eleven hours each day, seven days a week. Post-pandemic, the store could only open for five days each week for eight hours each day.

“When you lose three hours of business, you lose 30% of your business,” said Cohen.

Big Al’s Manager Marian Theriault said that staffing shortage “creates a snowball effect,” stresses the few employees who are working and diminishes the experience for customers.

“If you have five employees working and an order comes in, it takes three employees to unload the truck,” she said. “If there are a lot of people in the store, you can only have two registers open, which your lines at the registers.”

Theriault has been working for Cohen for 25 years and said she’ll miss working for him and the other long-term employees who have become like a family.

Big Al, owner of his eponymous Fireworks Outlet in Wiscasset, takes product inventory. Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald

“We have a dedicated staff,” said Theriault. “They’ve worked hard and done everything they can, the odds are just against us. We’re living in a world now and no one ever dreamed we’d be going through this. We’ve also established a relationship with regular customers. Even as a local resident, I’m going to miss having the store in our town.”

Wiscasset Chamber of Commerce Executive Manager Pat Cloutier said Big Al’s closing will leave a noticeable hole in the community, both because a local landmark and resource will vanish from Route 1 and because of how involved Cohen is in the community.

“He has been a convenient resource because he has everything,” said Cloutier. “If you need copier paper or school supplies, he has it. think he has done a great job being a resource for and friend to the community in every way.”

Cloutier said the chamber of commerce has seen long-term staffing issues throughout the area and state, which makes it difficult to reap the benefits of the healthy tourist season the area saw this summer.

“We’re not in a vacuum here,” she said.

Though it’s sad to see a local business close, Cloutier said she’s interested to see what fills Big Al’s building after the store is gone. She didn’t have any hopes or expectations, but instead said Wiscasset is “welcoming of any business. There’s room for everyone.”

Cohen said he began telling staff about the impending closure Sept. 10. He said he wanted to tell them months in advance so they could find new jobs before the store closed fully.

“I have a great crew of people and I’m not going to leave them high and dry,” said Cohen. “I feel melancholy. The reality is setting in and rocking me. It’s sad to see an institution disappear.”

Cohen said the store will begin selling the last of its merchandise next week at 33% off. A date for closure hasn’t been set, but Cohen said it will likely be within the first week of January 2022.

“It’s a sad day because we’re a local institution,” said Cohen. “I’ve been very blessed to have great customers over the years. I’d rather go out while I’m at the top than when I’m scratching the bottom. I’ve had a great run, but I don’t want to go down with a sinking ship.”

Big Al’s Fireworks Outlet, next door to Big Al’s Super Values Outlet, will remain open.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.