James and Libbie Cohen immigrated to Pittsburgh from Lida, Poland, in 1885. They raised ten children, Hyman, Newman, Frank, Morris, Davie, Henry, Yale, Milton, Ethel and Jessie.
After selling shoes for an existing retailer, James Cohen (c.1867-1930) opened James Cohen Company in Uptown in 1890. The wholesale house changed locations several times until 1919, when it moved to 1017 Fifth Avenue, where it stayed for more than half a century. Some of his children and grandchildren worked for the business, which stayed in the family well into 1970s. Early on, James Cohen was mostly a jobber, buying discounted goods as they became available. The business eventually grew into a more traditional wholesaling enterprise that acquired merchandise from manufacturers and sold it to retailers in Pittsburgh and throughout the small towns of western Pennsylvania.
In the 1900s, James Cohen sat on the board of the Fifth Avenue bank Merchants’ Savings and Trust Company, along with fellow Fifth Avenue businessman Herman Obernauer. He was a member of Beth Jacob Congregation.