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Raymond Cohen, who’s 89, is taking some time away from the family electronics business he started in downtown Montgomery in 1957. His sons are running things during the pandemic.

But for the most part it’s business as usual. Cohen’s Electronics and Appliances carved out a spot in a 21st century marketplace dominated by big box stores by focusing on custom service while keeping prices within a few pennies of their competitors. That hasn’t changed, even in a very unusual 2020 that saw most local stores shuttered for months.

“My Whirlpool is no better than the guy’s across the street. My Sony TV is no better than the one you can get on Amazon,” Michael Cohen said. “But my people are more knowledgeable, and we have service.

“You couldn’t buy a Happy Meal for the difference (between store prices). … You need to buy from who you like, and who you think’s going to take care of you. We think you should buy local.”

That’s the core message behind Small Business Saturday, an annual focus on Main Street that has a new significance in a year with unprecedented challenges for local business.

But it’s a message that also seems to be resonating with more people this year. Michael Cohen said year-over-year sales are actually up slightly at the family business, despite the challenges. It’s a similar story at 79-year-old local children’s clothing shop The NameDropper, where mid-afternoon business was steady and strong the week before Black Friday.

Some shops have had more challenges than others.

George Wilder shut down the men’s clothing store he started in 1977, The Locker Room, for over a month during a statewide Stay at Home order earlier this year. Only essential stores, like those that sold groceries, were allowed to stay open at the time. He focused on online sales and making masks for health care providers, while weathering a more than 50% drop in business for April and May.

But Wilder wrote an open letter at the time questioning why some big box retailers were allowed to continue selling clothes alongside groceries while small businesses like his had to remained closed.

“With most businesses closed, we now have the same number of consumers shopping in fewer stores, which does not lead to social distancing,” Wilder wrote at the time.

Since it reopened, The Locker Room has been dealt a blow by telecommuting culture. People just don’t buy suits anymore since they don’t need to go to the office. Sales of casual clothing and sportswear are way up at his Auburn and Montgomery stores, but it’s not enough to make up the difference.

Local companies across the area are working to adjust to that changing culture. The cornerstone dry cleaning business is down at 75-year-old Jim Massey Cleaners, so they’ve expanded their pickup and delivery options and are planning an area with 24-hour customer access to laundry.

Jim Massey recently acquired delivery-focused local competitor Save-A-Tripp Cleaners to help with some of those adjustments. “”Everything is just shifting and changing so fast,” President Jim Massey III said Monday.

Still, Wilder is optimistic.

He said the pandemic has created some good will toward local business, and he’s hopeful that it will help people better appreciate what they contribute to the fabric of society here. That could help in the long term.

“I feel like when this is over, folks are going to realize that small businesses are the backbone of our community,” Wilder said. “They’re what make our city special.”

Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Brad Harper at [email protected]

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