Before the pandemic, Allen “Big Al” Cohen figured he would keep his Big Al’s Super Values store on Route 1, Wiscasset open another 10 years. Starting Monday, he’s selling everything at 33% off. He’s liquidating.
“We will close at the end of the year for good,” Cohen said. The store he has had 35 years has been down so many workers in the pandemic, he has done a lot more himself and realized, he could not keep doing it.
He is down about eight workers from two years ago. He adjusted by having the store open fewer days, or adding days back but for fewer hours.
What will he do when the store closes? He will keep open his fireworks store next door and his Boothbay storage business; have more time to volunteer for St. Philip’s Church’s food pantry Help Yourself Shelf, which he does food pick-ups for; and keep serving on Wiscasset’s planning board and ordinance review committee. “So I’m not going to fade away ... I’ll still be a local presence and still do my volunteer work.”
He will also have a new job: “I’m going to become a landlord.” Cohen plans to rent out the 17,000 square foot building, maybe not right off, maybe in a year, but someone will want to lease it, he said.
Others interviewed agreed. They said the store’s end is a loss but will bring something else to Route 1 and the town, whatever goes in. And Wiscasset Area Chamber of Commerce Chair Chip Davison observed, the stretch will still have other well-known draws for consumers, including Ames True Value Supply, both Wiscasset Ford and Norm’s Used Cars and, to the north, Red’s Eats.
Davison gets Cohen’s problem finding workers. He has it, too. “I’m down to just myself right now,” he said of his business, Davison Construction. And in the trades, he said he could get workers low on skills, but they want to be paid like skilled ones. “So (the worker shortage) is a very near concern to us in the Chamber. We chat about it every time we get together now,” he said.
He called Cohen’s plans “very sad news ... Big Al’s has become a landmark in Wiscasset over the years,” giving people a viable reason to stop, he said.
Lack of workers is a challenge across business sectors, Lincoln County Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Mary Ellen Barnes said. Barnes’ office is across the road from Big Al’s. Cohen’s TV ads saying “Route 1, Wiscasset” have helped put Wiscasset on the map, she said. “It’s a very popular store for a lot of people, so it definitely will be a loss (but) I don’t think it’s a negative sign for Wiscasset. To me, it’s an opportunity ... for new use. It’s a very well-known location” and new businesses have been opening nearby, including Maine Tasting Center, she said.
Town Manager Dennis Simmons said Cohen is “kind of a staple in this town ... for his ads and personality and generosity as a resident here.” Keeping jobs filled is a challenge for the town, too, Simmons said. “We’re going to pay more in labor this year, or do things differently than we have in the past ... It’s tough everywhere.”
Cohen said since people heard he plans to close the store, he has gotten countless texts. It has been bittersweet, he said. He expects some of his staff of 11 will go to work at his fireworks store. And the many open jobs around are part of why he decided now about Big Al’s Super Values, he said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be leaving anybody high and dry for work. Everywhere you look, there’s ‘help wanted’ signs, everywhere.”
Could he have ridden out the worker shortage? He tried: He has taken five applications since he put out a ‘help wanted’ sign in March. “It’s gotten very easy for people not to work,” with people on unemployment getting an extra $300 a week until recently, and other aid still going for some people, he said.
Asked about a Wiscasset without Big Al’s Super Values, Cohen said the world is a very different place than it was two years ago. “Everything’s different,” he continued. “So it’s just part of the different fabric of what we’re dealing with at this moment.”