“More bitter than sweet,” is how Gilbert Cohen described closing his family-owned Cohen’s Clothiers that has been located in Cockeysville’s Yorktowne Plaza since the shopping center opened in 1969.
Before that, the business was on South Broadway in Fells Point, where Cohen’s grandfather Max opened a shop in 1904. Max had emigrated from what was Southern Russia, now Ukraine, in the 1880s and peddled goods in Baltimore and in Grafton, West Virginia, a major railroad hub at the time.
“We closed the Broadway store in 1974,” he said. “More and more people that were the core of East Baltimore, which were primarily Eastern Europeans, had begun to move.”
Originally an exclusively men’s clothier for more than 70 years, Cohen expanded into boys’ wear in 1977 when a couple well-known Pikesville boys’ shops closed. He ventured into women’s and girls’ wear in 2002. But the shop, which has expanded from 4,000 to 10,000 square feet over the decades, started its liquidation sale Jan. 16 with extended hours and deep discounts. Cohen expects to close up shop for good by the end of March, just as his lease expires.
It is that lease, he said, and not necessarily his age or even online competition that ultimately forced his hand on choosing whether to keep his business going. Although the half-century old Yorktowne Plaza is under renovation plans, according to owners H&R Retail, Cohen felt making a commitment on a new lease would be risky business, so he chose to close instead.
But the 81-year-old Cohen, whose energy and humor make him seem decades younger, doesn’t plan on slowing down. Working at the family business since he was 10 years old, Cohen said he now works every day, and admits staying relevant and solvent in a family-owned, independent clothing business isn’t easy.
“The only days that I’m out of here is if I’m at a trade show, or I’m on vacation. But I don’t take a day off. It takes that kind of work and commitment,” he said. “Can it be done? Yes. But it’s not easily done.”
Growing up in West Baltimore and while attending Friends School on Charles Street as a teen, he would take multiple buses across town to work at the Fells Point shop after school, which he said cut into his social life. His brother also worked at the store.
“In those days, it was the Jewish way. Your children worked,” he said. “I came down to the store two or three days a week and all day Saturday.”
Cohen’s father died young, at age 51 in 1952. A few years later, Cohen went to New York University. In 1961, in spite of being deaf in one ear, Cohen was designated 1-A by the Selective Service and drafted into the U.S. Army. He served most of his time as a National Guardsman at the former Nike Missile Base in Granite, Maryland. In between everything he was working at the store, and he became sole owner in 1977.
What he will miss most, besides everything about running the business, is the staff of more than two dozen and the customers.
“Two most important things that happen to me from Cohen’s was that I met my present wife here, my second wife,” he said. “And the fact that we have had the good fortune to have made some wonderful friends here. Great connections. We don’t think of them just as customers. People that we see regularly, year after year after year.
“And we’ve also been very fortunate to have some terrific employees here,” he added. “Employees that would be here, if I stayed forever, they would be with me forever.”
More than 250 posts on the shop’s Facebook page illustrate that the feeling is mutual from Cohen’s customers.
“I always brought my children in and tried to impress upon them that the professionalism and customer care were special and of a standard most never have the fortune to encounter in our world today,” said customer Joyce Curran Holbrook. “You will be missed.”
Cohen plays tennis every Sunday and he and his wife, Patricia, who also works at the shop, love to travel — they’ve taken 19 trips to Italy. On one trip in 1999, they put a letter in an empty wine bottle and tossed it off the back of a ship near the Amalfi Coast. That was in July. In November, he got a replay from three children. He and his wife have been visiting their families in Italy every year since, and some family members have come to visit the Cohens.
In addition to more travel and family time, Cohen plans to concentrate on his genealogy hobby when he retires, hoping to find out more about the man that started Cohen’s. The family isn’t even sure of his original name, but they think it’s Moses or Moishe Likvornik.
“He was so anti-Russian that not only did he change his name when he got to the United States, he forbid anyone to speak Russian in his presence,” Cohen said. “He hated them because he was the subject of significant Russian anti-Semitism.”
Cohen said he is a lucky man, and despite the hardships of losing a father so young, he has had a wonderful, fulfilling life with few regrets and many loving children and grandchildren.
“I want to fill my days. I’m not going to just stay home and watch television. I don’t play golf and I’m not going to build my life around who I am having lunch with,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to have a business, to be self-employed, to be my own boss, which I think probably was meant to be.”