Nfld. & Labrador

Careers at Cohen's last long and at 100 years, the store has too

Cohen's furniture store has stood the test of time — and so have the careers of the people who keep it going.

When war veterans were given furniture allowances to set up homes, Boyd Cohen stepped in

A photograph taken outside the S. Cohen & Sons store on Main Street in Windsor. Boyd Cohen says the store was attached to their family home. (Submitted by Brian Hann)

In the late 1940s, after a year studying away, Boyd Cohen went home to Windsor to help his aunt run the family business.

The S. Cohen & Son's store attached to the family home had a bit of everything, toys, hats and — to Boyd — the annoying sound of a label tagging machine running for hours each day.

"When you got 1,200 pairs of socks, and the noise was going for a couple of hours, you got bored with it," he said.

It wasn't long before Cohen took things in a different direction, eventually becoming Cohen's Home Furnishings, an evolution inspired by Newfoundland joining Canada in 1949.

Joey Smallwood, who was premier of Newfoundland and Labrador from 1949 to 1972, visits the Cohen's store in Grand Falls-Windsor. (Submitted by Brian Hann)

"All the Newfoundlanders who served in the Newfoundland Regiment, served overseas and were war vets, were treated like the Brits first, and then when we became part of Canada, they were given start-up allowances for homes and furniture," Cohen said. "And there was nobody in Central here who had any quantity of furniture." 

"People were coming in saying, 'Well, we've got veterans' allowance, what can I do about it?' so I said, 'I'll help you, I'll do my best.'"

According to Cohen, the average allowance was worth about $1,200 – enough for a bedroom and a living room set.

Loyal employees 

The business plan has changed completely — but the Cohen's store in Grand Falls-Windsor has stood the test of time and the company has expanded across the province over the years.

This year, Cohen's celebrated its 100th year of operations in Newfoundland and Labrador.

And careers inside the store in Central have proven just as sturdy.

Boyd Cohen sits in the Grand Falls-Windsor Cohen's store. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

Ed Coles, manager of the Grand Falls-Windsor location, said he started just out of high school. 

"I just figured it was going to be maybe a stepping stone, and figured I'd be here for probably a couple of years," said Coles. "Here I am, 32 years later."

Coles spent the first 18 years of his career in Lewisporte, but moved to the Grand Falls-Windsor location about a decade ago, and said a handful of his coworkers have been with the company even longer.

Brian Hann has spent 40 years inside the Cohen's company. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

"I feel like I've almost grown up with the company, so you get familiar, you get comfortable, for me it's like family."

Following the highway and the power

In its 100 years, Cohen's has seen a lot of changes — the paving of the Trans-Canada Highway in Newfoundland and the electrification of rural communities made business a whole lot better.

"When the rural electrification came in, we followed the routes," Cohen said. "And we had truckloads of furniture just following them, as they connected up the lines." 

These days, there are new challenges — companies selling furniture online, skipping the showroom floor altogether.

Ed Coles is now the manager of the Grand Falls-Windsor store. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

"Obviously there's been a lot of economic changes over Newfoundland, especially in the last 25 years with the fishery," said Brian Hann, who has been with the company for 40 years.

"We used to have stores in the smaller locations like the Grand Banks and the Roddicktons and the Burgeos, so now it's become more, I guess, a centralized business."

That change continues — in January, the store closed in Harbour Breton. There are now 13 stores  across the province — plus a Cohen's Carpet One store — down from more than 30 at one time.

Cohen's once offered a bus service inside Grand Falls and Windsor, which was free if customers made a purchase at the store, according to a project by the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador. (Submitted by Brian Hann)

Boyd Cohen said the company developed a bit of a reputation for hanging onto employees.

"They stayed because we were honest with them, we treated them fairly," he said. "A lot of people had big dreams, we didn't let anyone down but we told them the truth." 

When Hann started with the company, he worked in appliance servicing — sort of like the Maytag repair man, he joked, before working his way to sales manager.

Boyd Cohen said he was 24 years old when he decided to move into furniture sales full-time. (Submitted by Brian Hann)

He was hired by Boyd Cohen himself, in 1979. A few years later, Cohen sold the business to Charles R Bell Ltd, and in 1994 he retired.

But he still comes back from time to time, to check in on his lifetime project.

"When you found or born something, you know if you've been in the birthing place, you got a responsibility, or at least it's built in me, so I keep checking."

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About the Author

Garrett Barry

Journalist

Garrett Barry is a CBC reporter based in Gander.

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