The fun runs out at Building #19
Competition drives 49-year-old retailing fixture to bankruptcy
There was the time that windows were falling out of the Hancock Tower, so Building #19 snapped them up and sold the panes for $100 apiece.
Then there was the time that the store’s owner, barred from advertising the brand name of Burpee sunflower seeds, described them in fliers as two things you should not do in public.
And he once sold chemical protective suits for $14.99 as “the answer to secondary smoke,” gas mask not included.
Building #19 was the kind of place you went to intending to buy a fireplace poker, but walked out of with a designer suit — or maybe a ball gown or an oriental rug.
For decades, it capitalized on its founder’s light touch and keen eye for surplus goods and salvage items that would tickle the masses.
The Hingham company — famous as the place to go for “good stuff cheap” — has filed for bankruptcy protection. It has fallen victim to e-commerce and tougher competition from national discount retailers.
It plans to hold a liquidation sale and close all its 10 stores next month.
“For many people, Building #19 has been around as long as they can remember,” said Bill Elovitz, president of the company and the son of founder Gerry Elovitz. “This is a really difficult thing to do, but it was inevitable. We gave it our very best.”
Building #19 was created in 1964 when Gerry Elovitz, an unemployed appliance salesman known as Jerry Ellis, opened a no-frills retail store — literally warehouse No. 19 in the Hingham Shipyard — to sell a load of fire-salvaged furniture.
Elovitz worked for decades as the company’s amusing pitchman in quirky ads promoting great deals of the week. (One flier touted “Actual School Cafeteria Tools,” kitchen utensils on sale for 79 cents each.) Building #19 added locations — it currently operates in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island — but kept the name for luck and the bare-bones retail settings for savings.
Clarence Edwards, 73, of Randolph, said he’s looking forward to the final sale, but mourning the loss of a New England institution he’s frequented for nearly 50 years.
“It feels like you’re losing part of the family,” Edwards said Monday as he browsed in the Weymouth store.
Another customer, Pearl Kincaid of Quincy, said she started shopping at the Building #19 in the Hingham shipyard and remained a customer for decades. “My heart is breaking for them,” said Kincaid, 92. “They’re such good people.”
That sense of connection with the chain stemmed from Gerry Elovitz. A cartoonish figure of him has been used in the company’s ads for nearly five decades and on poster boards that dangle from the ceiling and are plastered along the walls of the stores.
“A sense of humor permeated their ads,” said Edgar Dworsky, who runs the education site ConsumerWorld.org.
“They called themselves America’s laziest and messiest department store.”
Now 86 and semi-retired, Gerry Elovitz still works 60 hours a week, his son said.
Dworsky described Elovitz as “one of the most honest retailers” he has ever met and as someone who demonstrates the “epitome of customer-driven service.”
The retailer continues to offer a striking variety of merchandise on any given day.
A recent Building #19 circular promoted up to 93 percent off filing cabinets and desks at the company’s Norwood store, 50 percent off the lowest price listed on ski gear at its Haverhill location, and men’s suits from Hickey Freeman and Missoni at Building #19 in Natick.
“It was fun working here because you didn’t know what you were going to get for product, and that made it interesting,” said Raj Hirani, manager of the store in Weymouth. “We have Bloomingdales and Kmart customers and products for both.”
But the odds-and-ends inventory made it difficult for Building #19 to transition to the digital era. Bill Elovitz said he tried to sell goods online to compete with e-commerce retailers, but the random assortment of products became burdensome to post online, locate, and ship.
“It’s one thing to go to a pile of 10,000 items to ship, but when we have just one item we couldn’t make it work,” he said.
Internet competition is pressuring all retailers, not just discount stores, said Ying Huang, an assistant marketing professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell with an emphasis in retail.
The biggest problem for small off-price retailers, she said, is national discount chains like Walmart Stores Inc.
“Walmart is just so big,” Huang said. “Its advantage is its economy of scale. They’re famous for reducing their costs by managing their supply chain efficiently. Smaller discounters cannot compete.”
Building #19 formally filed for bankruptcy protection on Friday. The company reported less than $3 million in assets, and is swamped by more than $5 million in trade debts and millions more owed to Elovitz family members who loaned money to the business.
Bill Elovitz said the company has been fighting to stay in business for a number of years. He praised his 99 employees, faithful customers, and the vendors they have encountered.
“We’ve tried to be good members of the community,” he said.
“We’ve saved a lot of customers a lot of money. I’m proud of what we’ve done. We’ve made people’s lives a little better.”