There was laughter as the team at Big Al’s Super Values gathered after closing on the evening of Dec. 30 to talk about their time together at one of the most well-known must-stop shops in the Midcoast. Big Al’s, a fixture in the town for 35 years, will be locking its doors for the last time on Jan. 10.
When asked how long they worked at the store, the answers were all over the place. “Ten years.” “35 years.” “Five years.” “Twenty-something years.” “Two.” “Fifteen.” “Four.. five.. I don’t remember.” “A couple months this time.” “Too long.”
This is a crew of people who have been a part of each other’s lives long enough for it to really mean something.
The memories are strong. “After the course of so many years we’ve been through a lot of life changes with each other,” said manager Marian Theriault, who has worked at Big Al’s for more than 25 years. “First it was our kids, now it’s grandkids. There’ve been a lot of bad times within us, but there’ve been a lot of good times too. And we help each other through it.”
“It’s the people. It’s a family,” said Melissa Cohen. “We rely on one another. Somebody needs something, somebody goes and gets it. Nobody’s screaming, hollering.”
Al Cohen, founder and owner of Big Al’s, has a history of taking care of his employees. Sometimes at the end of a shift he handed out small impromptu bonuses, “dinner money” he called it. He regularly treated the crew to pizza, or lunch at the Sea Basket restaurant across the street. He made sure there was cold Gatorade available when they unloaded the trucks.
They won’t just miss each other. There are customers like the Bangor sisters, or the camper girls who came and shopped over the years.
There was Mrs. Haggett who would come in at night near closing time to purchase greeting cards. “I would say, ‘OK girlfriend, it’s time to go home.’ She got the biggest kick out of that,” Maxine Barter recalled.
And Mrs. Pembleton who loved ladybugs and bought almost anything that featured them. When Cohen ordered in a ladybug bracelet, “she was just quivering she was so excited,” Theriault said.
It wasn’t uncommon for customers to make dinner or bring food for the staff; a regular from Massachusetts always brought donuts.
The warehouse-sized store was always stuffed to the beams with a vast array of products. That’s another reason the employees enjoyed their work.
“I’m going to miss it as a place to work but also as a place to shop. He has always had unique stuff; you never know what you’re going to find,” Theriault said.
“It’s always been a stop for people when they need something last minute, a gift for somebody, a school project. We’ve always had something they could use for something, whether it was the original item they had in mind or something different,” said Ray Walch.
“We sell the stuff that nobody sells anymore,” said Cohen.
Patricia Jacques said years ago her mom who worked at the store back then would send a huge box of stuff from Big Al’s at Christmas to her and her young daughter in Dallas. “My daughter loved it. She got taco holders one time and she just loved them.”
According to the employees, the average shopper in summer spent an hour and a half working their way from one end of the store to the other. They would stop and get a cup of coffee, shop, backtrack, “oh where did I find this,” continue shopping. Some customers were known to be in the store for five and six hours. There’s a lot to see.
“Over the course of the years we’ve had some really nice stuff,” Theriault said. “And then (with some things) it’s like ‘why’d you buy so many of those Al?’”
“Because the price was right” was his response.
Service was one of the things the staff cited as the reason customers kept coming over the years. Instead of being told “it’s over there,” staff members said they would try and take customers to the item they were looking for. If they didn’t have it, they would try to order it.
But Big Al’s was blessed with a good location, too. Right on Route 1, heading into downtown Wiscasset. Streams of tourists came through over the years and many of them made stopping there part of their vacation ritual.
The local community also supported the business. Cohen was generous and donated to or volunteered with schools, recreation centers, the food pantry, town boards, and more. Residents reciprocated by shopping local.
There were special touches that became part of the brand experience at Big Al’s.
“We always had free coffee and tea up ‘til COVID,” Walch said. And there was the free gift bar. According to Theriault, “in the summer when people are traveling you can tell the kids have been cooped up – they’re all over the place, ‘let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.’ Then they get to the free gift bar – they’re there for 15 minutes – which item do I want?”
To the town of Wiscasset, to Lincoln County, and to all the customers who shopped there over the years, Big Al’s was more than a store, Cohen was more than a business owner, and the people who worked at Big Al’s were more than employees.
This team will stay a team even when the lights are turned off, the door is locked, and the registers stop ringing. Some will retire. Barter is 80 years old; she’s spent the last 20 years working at Big Al’s and she’s looking forward to spending more time with her husband.
Some who worked two jobs will shift their hours to their second job. Some will have new jobs. Kathy Trussell has a new grandchild.
But there will still be phone calls, visits, get-togethers, dinners. And always memories.
As the team posed for a photograph, Cohen jokingly pleaded, “Let my ladies go home. They’ve been working all day long.”
On Jan. 10, the team at Big Al’s will all get to go home and put their feet up – after 35 years, or 15 years, or four years, or two months – of a job well done.