Al Cohen, known locally as “Big Al,” clad in a familiar animal-themed shirt, stands in his store Big Al’s Super Values in Wiscasset on the store’s last day in business. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record.

Customers poured into Big Al’s in Wiscasset on Monday morning to weave through the rows of discounted merchandise one last time. The Wiscasset store on Route 1 known for its colorful owner, Al Cohen, closed for good after 35 years in business.

“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, 71, said he couldn’t believe the store’s final day had arrived on Monday, but said customers and former employees have come into the store in the last few weeks to say goodbye.

“Since I announced I’m closing, every day I come in I feel like I’m at a wake for my business,” said Cohen. “I’ve had people come in and cry.”

Though Big Al’s held its own among box store giants like Walmart or Dollar General for decades, Cohen said the competition paired with staffing shortages incited by the pandemic wore on him.

“When I started, I was the only business in the game,” said Cohen. “I now have Walmarts on three sides of me and a Dollar General across the street. The only reason I don’t have a Walmart on the fourth side is because it’s water.”


When the store closed in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic reached Maine, Cohen said he had 25 employees. When the store re-opened five months later, Cohen recouped only 10 of his employees, some of whom are part-time.

Cohen said he could’ve lasted another year or two if he continued to work at the store as he does now, but the manual labor required was taking a toll on his body.

“I thought I’d be here another 10 years, but my knees and body hurt,” said Cohen. “If I had more labor, I would’ve stayed another few years. You don’t realize it as you’re doing it, but you’re building a battleship. I’d rather close while I’m still sailing ahead at full speed rather than let it sink.”

Moe Laprise of Boothbay Harbor shops at Big Al’s in Wiscasset on Monday, Jan. 10, 2021, the store’s final day. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record.

The limited staffing also forced Cohen to change the store’s hours, further hampering his profits. 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.

Store Manager Marian Theriault, an employee of 25 years, said her final day at Big Al’s is bittersweet because she’ll miss the store as both an employee and a consumer, but understands Cohen’s reason for closing because “our core staff are tired both physically and mentally.”

“Al did everything he could to keep this place afloat, but he just couldn’t get the workers,” said Theriault. “It’s a prime example of what’s happening to these small businesses in this economy. I’m curious what it’s going to be like in another two or three years. I think the need to support our local businesses needs to be emphasized more.”


Cohen said he wasn’t interested in selling the business because “the business is me” and another owner would likely inherit Cohen’s hiring challenges.

“Unless someone wants to invest a huge amount of money, it’s not the right time to be in the business,” said Cohen. “The world was made very different by the pandemic.”

Cohen said he wanted to announce his decision to close in September to allow his employees, some of whom have worked at the store for more than a decade, to find a new job.

“Right now, a bunch of them already have a job lined up,” said Cohen. “I’m not leaving anyone hungry.”

Despite the challenges, Cohen said he’ll miss interacting with his customers the most, especially those that have shopped there for decades.

“Some of my favorite things are when I see a family come in that’s four generations and I’ve seen two generations as babies – it’s an amazing thing to see,” he said.


Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record.

Lawrence Biehler of New Jersey is one of those customers for whom shopping at Big Al’s is a family affair and a cherished tradition.

Biehler said he and his family have spent summers in Popham Beach in Phippsburg for 40 years. Each year, his family piles into the car and cruises up Route 1, hitting certain quintessential Maine stores as they go, including Renys in Bath and Big Al’s.

“We make a point to stop in Big Al’s,” said Biehler. “On average, we spend 45 minutes to an hour there walking up and down every aisle. (Cohen) has so much inventory that you really need to look at everything or you might miss something you didn’t know you needed.”

Biehler said he’s sad to see Cohen close his doors because “it’s a piece of our Maine experience,” yet he’s not surprised staffing shortages have taken another victim.

“While it’s sad to see a business close, I respect the amount of time, effort and energy it took to run it,” said Biehler. “I wish him the best and I have fond memories that will last. I just hope a similar business goes in that property.”

Longtime patron Valerie Hinkley of Wiscasset stopped by Big Al’s on Monday to stock up on Christmas gifts for this year and take one final look around the store she’s been shopping at since it opened.


“My boys are in their 30s now and I can remember taking the oldest one here in a stroller,” said Hinkley. “It has always been a fun place to go and it’s going to be missed. There are things here you won’t find anywhere else.”

Cohen said he owns the property and plans to empty the space and lease it, hopefully to another store owner.

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

“I’m not going anywhere,” Cohen said,” I’m just going to have a little more time for me and my family.”

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