Maybe the first thing you need to know about Big Al Cohen — certainly it was the principal question this writer had before meeting him — is whether the madman in his television commercials is real or just a crafty advertising persona. Is he actually a loveable lunatic wielding flyswatters like weapons, trying (and failing) to juggle rolls of wrapping paper, ranting from atop the Great Wall of China (no really, the actual Great Wall) about his massive inventory and super values?
The short answer: what you see with Big Al is what you get, right down to the yellow measuring-tape suspenders and gorilla-face T-shirt.
“I did make sure to wear the gorilla shirt, because I knew I was meeting you,” Al says, after settling into an interview at his 16,000-square-foot emporium-cum-roadside-attraction, Big Al’s Super Values, on Route 1 in Wiscasset. And lest I suspect he otherwise dresses like a British dandy, he quickly adds, “But I wear some kind of wildlife shirt every day.”
Not only is Al genuinely the man you see in his commercials, he stays true to himself — and his dress code — no matter the circumstance. He’s been denied admission to a tony midcoast country club because his wildlife shirts lack collars, and he once took an audience with Bush 41 clad exactly as he would be while picking in one of his warehouses.
So how did this man, a son of Jewish discount retailers from Long Island, who’s lost not a trace of his native accent, become one of the most recognizable icons of summer in Maine? To understand, we have to start in early-1980s New York City — a decaying, crime-ridden Gotham bearing little resemblance to the sanitized, Times Square-as-Disneyland Big Apple we know today. Al, a decade out from a Quinnipiac University accounting degree, was working for his family’s business.
“The city was really deteriorating,” he says. “Lots of muggings and robberies and holdups. The state was closing psychiatric facilities and dumping the people into group homes.”
As much as anything else, it was the deaths of two of those people that drove Al to Maine.
“I get a phone call at 2 o’clock in the morning from the police, saying ‘You’ve gotta come down to the store,’ ” he recalls. A former patient at the Pilgrim State psychiatric hospital, seeking shelter on a stormy night, had wandered into the doorway of the store, fallen through the glass, and bled out. Some time later, another person, sleeping in the dumpster out back, was crushed to death by the compactor.
“So it was like, I don’t want to be living here,” Al says. “This is just nuts.”
Leaving New York wasn’t easy, though. Al wanted out of the family retail trade, but his wife had a good job, and his son was in high school. So he initially came to Maine on his own, in 1985, and bought an unfinished mini-storage business through an estate sale. This was the original plan — no discount retail empire, no Al on TV in a wrestling singlet, threatening to pulverize his competition. Just a quiet, rural life as a storage facility owner.
Al felt pretty good about moving to Maine, even if his parents were skeptical of his decision to “go live in the woods in a tin box.”
On weekends, he went home to NYC; during the week, he lived in a trailer on the mini-storage campus, with a propane heater and a sump pump rigged to draw water from a creek. Al introduced himself to Boothbay by cutting down 80 trees on his new property and donating the wood to anyone who wanted it, a neighborly act that he credits for his acceptance into the community. It felt good to be out of the city, and at the outset, Al figured he’d made the right choice, even if his parents were skeptical of his decision to leave the family business and “go live in the woods in a tin box.”
The early going in mini-storage, however, proved both financially challenging and dull as dishwater. Al rented only a handful of units during his first few months in business. He felt like the Maytag Man, sitting around with his chin in his hands, waiting for calls that never came. Retail, he realized in those months, was in his blood. (“I could sell shit in a bag,” he tells me, “if it’s a nice-enough bag.”) So after a dismal year in the storage biz, he went back to the racket he’d come to Maine to escape. And Big Al’s Super Values, the Odd Lot Outlet, was born.
Right away, Al had a few things to learn about marketing odd lots in NYC versus Maine. “In New York, every year, I could sell 25 cases of pasta bowls,” he says. “When I came to Maine and ordered 10 cases of pasta bowls, I think I sold maybe four or five pieces in the first three months. But you know what? The following year, when the sign read ‘Chowdah Bowls,’ I sold 10 cases.”
Big Al is nothing if not adaptable. The store was profitable more or less out of the gate — enough that he was skeptical a few years later when a TV ad rep came around, trying to sell him on the idea of taping his own spots. Al took some convincing, but soon enough, he was in the aisles, sounding his barbaric yawp into a TV camcorder. The rest, as they say, is history.
Thirty years in, Al is as busy, and as happy, as he’s ever been. He’s settled into a rural life — the Wiscasset home he shares with his wife sits on an idyllic point overlooking the Sheepscot — if not necessarily a quiet one. In addition to his main store’s selection of, um, eclectic wares (from musical candy dishes to egg yolk separators, Al’s basic philosophy is to sell people things they don’t know they need), Al has also recently expanded into fireworks. He’s eager to give me a tour of his warehouses (one gets the sense he enjoys spending time in them more than the store itself), starting with the pre-fab mega-shed where he keeps most of his fireworks.
We clamber into his SUV, where Al’s Boston terrier, Lily, who accompanies him most everywhere, seems a bit indignant about having to give up the front seat, at least until she realizes how welcoming and comfy is this writer’s lap. Most of the car’s interior is taken up with Lily’s belongings: numerous blankets, toys, her lunch container. The only item that seems to be Al’s is a spray bottle of Old Spice resting in the cup holder.
We ask the hard questions around here: what’s the Old Spice for?
Al laughs. “I work hard, and I sweat, so every time I get out of the car I spray Old Spice. I don’t want to smell.”
Inside the fireworks warehouse, a short drive from the store, the smell of black powder hangs thick in the air. Stacked up everywhere are hundreds upon hundreds of plain cardboard boxes, some on shelves 20 feet high. Al and two of his employees seek out and load the day’s order into a white sprinter van, hoisting boxes labeled “Vengeful Texan” and “AR15” — names one ruefully imagines are a Chinese marketer’s idea of what appeals to Americans. Another case, full of Roman candles, bears a cautionary message: “Warning: Shoots Flaming Balls.” Say what you will about globalization (where would Al be without it?), but don’t tell me it can’t be funny.
Adrift in the Bank of Al, one starts to get a feel for the enormity of the beast of American commerce.
After the fireworks order is filled, we head off to Al’s biggest warehouse — the one he calls “the Bank of Al.” It is, in a word, massive — 19,000 square feet packed with more stuff than the ample shelving can hold. Boxes are stacked up in the aisles. The ceilings are high enough that one has to crane one’s neck to see the top shelves. Most every box has been labeled (“Fugly Smelling Candles” is a representative tag), and many have an item taped to the front as a visual aid. These are for employees’ benefit, though; Al doesn’t need help. His knowledge of his stock is such that he can answer any of his staffers’ seemingly random questions about an item’s location. Where are the plush shamrocks? The model helicopters? The bowling ball piggybanks? Al’s knowledge is encyclopedic, his recall instantaneous.
How does he come into all this stuff? Al deals exclusively with catalog companies, businesses that are explicitly seasonal. So when summer ends and a company finds itself chock-a-block with unsold snorkeling gear, Big Al swoops in and buys entire lots on the cheap, whole tractor-trailers full of merch.
The transactions may be simple, but to the uninitiated, the scale of Al’s business can be confusing, almost disorienting. Adrift in the Bank of Al, one starts to get a feel for the enormity, and the enormous inefficiency, of the beast of American commerce. Every item in this warehouse was once for sale someplace else and went unwanted. Maybe it was too expensive. Maybe somebody produced more of it than the market could absorb. Or maybe the world never needed thousands of cheap plastic boomerangs in the first place. Regardless, the mind boggles at the thought of how much money, energy, and labor went into making and transporting Al’s stock before it finally made its way to him.
But Big Al, who is perhaps less idly ruminative than this writer, has no interest in such contemplations: he sees a deal, he makes the deal, and he passes the savings on to you. It’s that simple. If the world didn’t churn out more merchandise than it could ever possibly consume at full retail, he’d be out of business — and some 20 people, plus seasonal staff, would be off the payroll.
“I feed a lot of families,” Al says, an assertion that often rings hollow in this era of peak “job creator” rhetoric. But Al’s sense of duty to his staff seems both sincere and often at the forefront of his mind. He laments the few months each winter that he shutters the store and his workers have to go on unemployment, and he seems genuinely perturbed that state law prevents him from directly paying their benefits during that time. After three decades of wheeling and dealing, taking care of his employees seems to mean as much to Al as the business itself.
Because for all his TV mania (and an in-person gruffness that seems a holdover from his NYC upbringing), Big Al clearly has a soft, nougaty center. He donates non-perishable stock to various midcoast food pantries and homeless shelters. He visits the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital in Portland a few times a year to tell stories and hand out stuffed animals. Lily the dog has a cardiologist. And every other week, he travels to New York to tend to his mother’s affairs: grocery shopping, laying out weeks’ worth of medication, balancing the checkbook.
“She’s 93,” Al says. “If I continue to go every other week, she can live where she lives. If I don’t, she’ll end up in a facility.”
At 66, Al keeps a pace that’d be taxing for a man half his age. He bought his SUV brand new six months ago; it already has 30,000 miles on it. Between his work in New York and Maine, he figures he’s served some five generations of customers — mothers bringing in daughters, daughters bringing in granddaughters, and so on. When he talks about this, his tone is incredulous, like he can’t believe how much time has passed, like that much sand through the hourglass gives him pause. And it raises the obvious question of whether Big Al sees himself retiring soon — or ever.
“Absolutely not,” he says. “For many years I kept telling my wife I was gonna retire in 10 years. And about two years ago she looked at me and said, ‘You know, you’ve been retiring for 22 years, and I don’t think you’re any closer to it now than you were then.’ ”
It occurs to me that, despite his New York roots — and a nutball public persona that almost literally screams “from away” — Al has come to belong fully to a generation of Maine men, like my father, for whom work is life. Retirement, for these men, is not just disagreeable or boring — it is unthinkable. They seem to have an immutable binary choice: keep moving or die.
Standing there in the Bank of Al, reflecting on his decades-old promise to his wife to retire, Al laughs and shrugs. “I love what I do,” he says, simply.
Big Al’s is set to reopen on Monday, March 16, for its 2020 season. 298 Bath Road/US Route 1, Wiscasset. 207-882-6423.