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Meet the man behind the gorilla t-shirt

How a discount store and countless commercials made Big Al a household name.

The boy was just ten years old when he started helping out his parents at their store. He ticketed merchandise, swept and cleaned floors, did what nobody else wanted to do. His name was Allen Cohen. You know him as…Big Al.

Fifty seven years later, Big Al is still working in retail. For more than three decades he has presided over Big Al’s Odd Lot Outlet on Route 1 in Wiscasset, home of fly swatters and bath mats, clipboards and athletic tape, coin wrappers and—well, the list could go on, but we don’t want to be here for three days, do we?

The store wasn’t Big Al’s first business when he moved to Maine from New York in the 1980s. Instead, he ran a mini-storage firm in Boothbay, which was not particularly stimulating for a guy who loved to talk with customers. “It’s like being the Maytag repairman,” he says. “You wait for the phone to ring…and you wait for the phone to ring. And once in a while, the phone rings. Then you get a customer who’s with you for a long time.”

A year later, Al opened a store on Route 1 in Wiscasset and, as he says, “the rest is history.” Big Al’s is an institution, thanks to the TV commercials featuring the owner--always clad in a t-shirt featuring a tiger or gorilla or some other wildlife--that have been running for three decades. How much has he spent on those TV ads over the years? His rough guess: two million dollars.

Along the way Big Al himself has become famous in southern Maine. He can’t begin to count the number of selfies people have asked to take with him. “I do not eat out at restaurants much anymore,” he says. “I prefer to eat at home because it’s nice to get through a meal with nobody coming over to talk to you and tell you how much they love your commercials.”

No doubt you’ve had some memorable encounters, I suggested to Al. There are, after all, people who get awfully excited when they meet a local celebrity. “You should have been with me [this year] at the Fryeburg Fair,” he said. “It was like I couldn’t walk ten feet without somebody having to say something to me. It was like—wow! Just overwhelming.”.