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Bankrupt Building 19 reinvents itself as a rug store

Bill Elovitz said he began buying rugs because it let him “deal with beautiful things.”

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff

Bill Elovitz said he began buying rugs because it let him “deal with beautiful things.”

Building 19, the retail chain that sold “good stuff cheap,” may be in the middle of bankruptcy proceedings, but that isn’t stopping the company from trying to reinvent itself.

No, the stores won’t again be selling any of the oddball items they used to feature, such as windows from Boston’s John Hancock Tower or two-piece suits — jackets and vests only. At least not for now. In its new incarnation, the company plans to operate as The Rug Department, offering a variety of Oriental rugs and some mattresses.

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Two of the stores will be located in former Building 19s in Norwood and Burlington. A third may end up in Norwell.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The stores will offer Oriental rugs and some mattresses.

“Every time I walk in, all I can say is wow!” said owner Bill Elovitz, referring to the 90,000-square-foot Norwood location, which is scheduled to have a soft opening Saturday. “We have handmade rugs from China and India and a lot of old Persian rugs, as well as machine-made ones from the United States and Belgium.”

But Frederic Brunel, an associate professor of marketing at Boston University, wonders whether focusing on one specialized product is the way to go.

“Will rugs by themselves be a sufficient draw to sustain such a large retail space with good inventory turnover?” he said. “The company will also face a lot of competition and will not have the Building 19 name and the goodwill that came with the name.”

Bill Elovitz is the son of 86-year-old Gerry Elovitz — better known as Jerry Ellis — who, along with Bill and other family members, owned the Hingham-based Building 19, which began in 1964. In November, the chain filed for bankruptcy and said it would close all 10 stores, citing shifting consumer buying trends and the pressure of increased competition.

‘Every time I walk in, all I can say is wow!’

BILL ELOVITZ, referring to his Norwood store 
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The younger Elovitz sounds much like his colorful father when he talks about his new enterprise.

“I love having customers take my beautiful rugs home, and I love when they give me money for them and say ‘thank you,’ ” he said.

But Elovitz does not have a lot of rugs in his own home. “I have cats and they can throw up on them,” he said.

“My father thought I was out of my mind when I first started buying Oriental rugs for Building 19 years ago,” he said. “But I saw it as a way that I could have some fun and travel around the world and deal with beautiful things.”

Elovitz acknowledged he was hardly a rug expert. “I made mistakes, but no one in the business knew anything about buying Oriental rugs, so I was protected from criticism,” he said. “That gave me room to learn and grow.” He eventually gave up the traveling, and now buys from what he calls his “New York City connections.”

Building 19 was not just low tech, it was virtually no tech.

“I was like an Underwood typewriter in a world of computers,” Jerry Ellis said in a November Globe interview.

Will The Rug Department be more in keeping with the times? “A little, but not much,” said Bill Elovitz. “I don’t know how to use [technology]. I know a good deal on a rug.”

Although the Elovitzes were not high tech, they certainly knew how to protect some of their assets from creditors. Bill, for example, held a separate license to sell Oriental rugs in the Building 19 stores, and other family members held similar licenses to sell specific types of goods. Since they were licensed ventures, the assets associated with them were shielded from bankruptcy creditors.

The company’s properties were placed in real estate trusts by the Elovitzes — insulating them from vendors and others owed money. Though the two Elovitzes loaned money to the business, they made themselves secured creditors, which means they may be the first in line to collect any liquidation money.

Even as he moves forward with The Rug Department, Bill Elovitz does not rule out Building 19’s return. “Who knows what the future holds?” he said. “We’re going one step at a time. But I do have my fantasies, you know.”

Colman M. Herman can be reached at colman@verizon.net.
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