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Building #19 bankruptcy: Only the jokes were perfect

Nearly 50 years after the irrepressible Gerry Elovitz — aka “Jerry Ellis” — started his no-frills operation in a warehouse at the Hingham Shipyard, Building #19, the discount chain that billed itself as “America’s Laziest and Messiest Department Store,” has filed for bankruptcy. Its 10 outlets will close next month, and the local retail market won’t be nearly as much fun.

Even more than Elovitz’s pennies-on-the-dollar discounts and unpredictable inventory — who else would sell you the windows that fell out of the John Hancock Tower? — what really made Building #19 so memorable was its self-deprecating humor. Getting customers to laugh was always important to Elovitz. In his weekly circulars and in-store signs, he made himself the butt of his own corny jokes, never disguising the fact that the salvage and surplus goods he sold were often less than perfect.

Life is full of flaws and imperfections, Building #19 gently suggested, but that’s no reason to miss out on all that it still offers. Each of the company’s stores offered free coffee, which came in cups asking customers not to make fun of its poor quality, since “someday you’ll be old and weak yourself!

Fifty years of selling “good stuff cheap” was a fine accomplishment. But what’s most distinctive about Building #19 is the consistent joyfulness with which Elovitz infused the business. That won’t be so easy to replace online.

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