Obituaries

Jerry Ellis dies at 90

Jerry Ellis, Building 19’s purveyor ‘Good stuff cheap,’ dies at 90

Jerry Ellis, the master of merchandise mayhem, died at home Saturday of vascular ailments.
Boston Globe File 2013
Jerry Ellis, the master of merchandise mayhem, died at home Saturday of vascular ailments.

When the John Hancock Tower’s windows started falling out in the mid-1970s, Jerry Ellis saw another great item for his Building 19 chain of discount “semi-lovely” emporiums.

Snatching up unbroken 500-pound panes, he sold them for $100 each — “cash and try to carry.” The tower’s owners wouldn’t let him reveal where he got the glass, but he devised a way to tell his customers. On one pane in the store display he scribbled: “We can’t mention where this came from, but the Declaration of Independence can.”

Jokes and wordplay were always abundantly available at Building 19, and shoppers needed to look no further than the sign. As the chain expanded, new stores bore such names as Building 19½ and Building 19¾.

Advertisement

Jerry Ellis, the master of merchandise mayhem whose given name was Gerald Irwin Elovitz, died at home Saturday of vascular ailments. He was 90, lived in the NewBridge on the Charles senior community in Dedham, and previously had resided in Newton for many years.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Filling his stores with unusual goods culled from manufacturer’s closeouts, overstock, and bankruptcies at other businesses, along with leftover pickings from the occasional natural disaster, Mr. Elovitz made his chain’s name synonymous with quirky items at the right price.

His advertising circulars, which poked fun at sale items, were coveted reading material for their hilarity, even for those who never set foot in the store.

“Good stuff cheap” was the slogan for Building 19, which billed itself as the “America’s Laziest and Messiest Department Store.”

That only half-described Mr. Elovitz, a workaholic as legendary for his long hours as he was his occasionally scattered approach to everyday matters. He treated the trunk of his car as a briefcase and swore he kept a set of golf clubs in there, though those who peeked in were hard-pressed to spot it under the swirl of papers.

Advertisement

He festooned the walls of his stores with signs bearing messages such as “Free Delivery (to your car)” and “If you can’t find what you’re looking for, buy something else.” Mr. Elovitz spent thousands of dollars annually to provide free coffee in cups that advised customers to not make fun of the beverage’s poor quality because “someday you’ll be old and weak yourself!”

His reign as discount royalty lasted nearly 50 years, from 1964 until the chain filed for bankruptcy in 2013, when he was 86.

Even an event that most might greet with somber reflection was fodder for Mr. Elovitz lively imagination. “I was like an Underwood typewriter in a world of computers,” he told the Globe in an interview after the filing. “We woke up one day and the world had just outgrown us.”

New England’s shoppers may have traded his cheerfully cluttered stores for the convenience of online sites, but they were unlikely to forget the oddities that could only be purchased in the Building 19 stores in the years before the Internet.

“We had two-piece suits with a jacket and vest, but no pants,” he said in the 2013 interview. “We sold radiation suits with holes under the arms. I could never figure out what the holes were for. We also sold the lids to paint cans — just the lids!”

Advertisement

The middle child of three siblings, Mr. Elovitz was born in Providence and moved with his parents — Samuel Elovitz and the former Jessie Linder — to Hartford when he was young.

By his own recounting, Mr. Elovitz had a gift for playfulness from the outset. He told the Globe he was kicked out of Jones Junior High in Hartford on graduation day for placing a replica of a bottle of bourbon on a cafeteria table.

He graduated from Weaver High School and was a private first class in the Army — more than once.

“I made PFC three times and was busted twice,” he said of his military years, when he was stationed in Italy. “One time it was because I took a lieutenant’s Jeep to go fishing without asking him. When I came back, he defrocked me of my one stripe.”

While studying at Trinity College in Hartford, he married his high school sweetheart, Elaine Glaubinger, in 1948. They had met, he said, when they were Weaver High students and he picked up some books she had dropped.

After graduating “with no particular honors” from Trinity, where he recalled taking courses that “met at a good hour,” Mr. Elovitz started his career, which included working for the former Raymond’s department store in Boston and going bankrupt in an early business venture of his own.

“He used to say that one bankruptcy is worth two Harvard MBAs,” said his daughter Linda Elovitz Marshall, an author of children’s books who lives in Selkirk, N.Y.

Harvard Business School agreed with his assessment, at least somewhat. Mr. Elovitz’s later success with his Building 19 chain was featured in a business school case study.

Mr. Elovitz and his friend Harry Andler launched Building 19 in 1964 after they checked out the remains of a furniture store fire in Rhode Island. Andler, who died in 1978, provided seed money for their business. The pair salvaged some furniture and moved it to a Hingham warehouse that bore the name “Building 19.”

The name stayed. “I was too cheap to paint a new sign,” Mr. Elovitz quipped in 1985.

By then, he was known professionally as Jerry Ellis.

“I wanted to separate my personal life from my professional life,” he recalled in 1992. “When I was in the appliance business, I got tired of people calling me up late at night and telling me the TV they bought from me didn’t work.”

As his chain grew, stores stretched from New Hampshire to Rhode Island. In its heyday, Building 19 employed more than 1,000 people, and Mr. Elovitz’s business counted annual revenues in the tens of millions — all from an $8,000 investment in 1964 to sell smoky furniture out of a Hingham warehouse.

“I’ve had a great run,” he said in 2013. “Many lucky things have happened to me along the way.”

Mr. Elovitz “was wise and kind and supportive, and he helped everybody he could,” his daughter Linda said. “And he was incredibly generous — both he and my mother.”

A private family service has been held for Mr. Elovitz, who in addition to his wife and daughter leaves two children, Bill of Boston and Judi of Newton; a sister, Pauline Elovitz Richman of Hilton Head, S.C.; nine grandchildren; and 20 great-grandchildren.

Mr. Elovitz remained an eternal optimist, even when he was in hospice care, said Linda, who this year published a book about her father, “Good Stuff Cheap! The Story of Jerry Ellis and Building #19.” Mat Brown, who collaborated with Mr. Elovitz for years on the store’s advertising, illustrated the book.

“When I asked him how he was doing, he said, ‘I can’t see, I can’t hear, but I’m good,’ and he meant it, because he was there with us — present,” Linda said. “He was the family’s rock.”

Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.