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Jacqui Cohen to permanently close Army & Navy

The five-store department-store chain has operated for 101 years
Army and Navy owner Jacqui Cohen stands outside her East Cordova Street store | Chung Chow

The five Army & Navy stores that owner Jacqui Cohen temporarily closed on March 18 will never reopen, she announced May 9.

She recently told Business in Vancouver that she expected a "bloodbath" in lost revenue when her stores reopened but did not hint that her venerable department-store chain could close forever. 

"After an incredible 101 years, we have made the difficult decision to permanently close Army & Navy," she told BIV May 9 in an emailed statement. "In March, we were forced to shutter all five of our stores and temporarily layoff our staff. We had hoped to re-open but the economic challenges of COVID-19 have proven insurmountable."

She expressed gratitude toward her staff for their years of service, her suppliers and her customers.

"It is hard to comprehend," she said. "This time last year we were celebrating the centenary of Army & Navy – a company my grandfather started in 1919 – and we were looking forward to the years ahead. Now we are closing a company that was at the heart of eight communities in western Canada over its 101 years."

Cohen noted that the retail sector has changed dramatically during the past century but never faced a challenge like the global pandemic. 

The Christian Labour Association of Canada sent BIV a statement saying that it would be working with Cohen to ensure fair severance packages for 83 of its members who worked at the Vancouver and New Westminster locations, and Cohen said that she will spend the immediate future working to ensure that her staff have support.  

"I will then be focusing on the philanthropic work of Face the World, an organization I created 30 years ago to support our city’s most vulnerable, and most importantly, my family, which has recently grown by one."

Cohen told BIV last year that one of her proudest accomplishments is that she has not sold her family’s real estate holdings.

Among the prized properties is the 13-storey Dominion Building, which was the tallest commercial building in the British Empire when it was completed in 1910. It was assessed in January at more than $42.6 million. Her Point Grey Road mansion was assessed at almost $40 million in 2019 but fell in value to close to $32.6 million in January.

She owns the real estate under all of her Army & Navy stores except for the one in Langley, as well as a patch of undeveloped land in Port Coquitlam and a home near the University of British Columbia, where her mother, Marlene Cohen, lives.

Holdings also include most of the block around the Cordova Street store – properties such as the Hildon Hotel, a parking lot and a head office building.

She told BIV last year that she had thought about redeveloping her Cordova Street properties but decided against it because she did not want the hassle of dealing with the City of Vancouver.

Cohen's grandfather, Sam Cohen opened his first storefront on Hastings Street in Vancouver in 1919, when he was 22 years old. His father had operated the Jacob Cohen and Sons store, which was also on West Hastings Street.

Sam Cohen mostly sold military surplus goods and his philosophy was to buy cheap, sell cheap and pass on a great deal to the customer. That business plan found success, and he expanded his business to be Canada's first discount department-store chain, with nine stores and a mail-order business throughout Western Canada.

Cohen, who took over her grandfather's business from non-family managers in 1998, reveres her grandfather. A large framed photo of Sam Cohen sat on a side table in her office when BIV interviewed her last year.

Her father, Jack Cohen, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when he was in his late teens. As a result, his father wanted to protect him by not forcing the management of the business on him, said Cohen, who turned 65 years old last year.

When Sam Cohen died in 1966, he left his fortune to his three grandchildren in trust accounts that were each valued in the eight figures. 

She said she did not think that her grandfather had it in mind that she would take over the family business. The plan was that her brother would run the company.

Tragedies, however, struck her siblings. Cohen's brother, Jeffrey Cohen, died of a drug overdose at age 26, in 1978. Her sister, Karen (Kayce) Cohen, then died at the age of 28, after losing control of her Ferrari on the Stanley Park Causeway in 1982.

“Needless to say, when I got to 30 [years old] it was quite a relief,” Cohen told BIV in 2009, when Army & Navy was celebrating its 90th anniversary.

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