Big Al’s…then and now
Big Al’s in St. Michaels closed its doors for good a few months ago, but it wasn’t until the building was completely demolished that most of us realized the loss that created in our little town.
How many places can you get oysters, clams, gunshell, fishing gear, fruit baskets and wine in a small town, anyway?
The Talbot Spy reprinted a piece Kathi Ferguson did a few years ago, with the history of the business and the Poore family’s contribution to the character and the culture of the town – click here for that.
Of course, things change. But losing businesses, and yes, even buildings – like Big Al’s, seems to be a net loss to the town. Real estate developers can tell us that it’s simple to recreate entire villages, with their own town centers and everything (!) but we know that authentic places aren’t created by developers. They emerge out of community, and out of spaces, buildings that have history. You could smell the crabs in the walls at Big Al’s – decades of them, and when that old screen door slammed BAM! behind you, you knew you were “somewhere.”
I used to buy beer, bait, ice and my annual crab pot at Big Al’s. Over the years, I had a few crab cakes there, sitting out on the picnic tables outside. Right across from the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s entrance on Talbot St., it was a good place for an outside lunch.
But the main thing Big Al’s gave us was its presence – its physical presence. You’d drive down Talbot St. and spying Big Al’s out of the corner of your eye… something would whisper “vacation! you’re on the Chesapeake Bay, in a small maritime town, there’s cool stuff to explore here…” and you’d mentally make a note to go back in to see exactly what Big Al’s was all about. It’s the promise of place to explore that makes a destination great, and recalling places like Big Al’s every time you come to St. Michaels, is what connects you to the town. These are the physical connectors to place that when paired with the emotional memory of a pleasant visit, supports the tourism here and everywhere else to the tune of billions of dollars. We need places like Big Al’s, and we need connection and personal history with place – just like we need like air and water.
I suppose the town may generate more revenue from property taxes on the multiple townhouses that are said to be built on the lots that were cleared, than ever was collected on the commercial spaces. In all, three buildings came down – whoosh!! – and in five day’s time, it looked like this:
The loss of three commercial properties in a small business district like St. Michaels feels big. What’s that worth? What’s it worth to have one more block for tourists to stroll? I suppose one could say that those buildings were old and in disrepair and nobody seemed to have a very good go at business in them in recent years. But replacing an entire pedestrian, commercial block with brand new residential buildings? Seems like a very permanent decision for what could have been some kind of mixed-use opportunity.
In any case, my heart was saddened at the loss of the building, the business, the long family history.
Of course, that long life can be celebrated as well. Here’s to you Big Al’s, and everyone in the Poore family. Thanks for your terrific business and generations of contributions to this town, this place. Your presence will be missed.