Building #19 owner looks back, ahead
Cofounder ‘Ellis’ reflects on beginnings, bankruptcy, and what the future holds
Building #19 — the discounter that since the 1960s has sold “good stuff cheap” — last week filed for bankruptcy protection, and next month it plans to close all 10 of its stores. The Hingham-based company, like many chains before it, was felled by changing consumer trends and increased competition.
The “semi-lovely emporium,” as Building #19 waggishly called itself, sold goods that merchants wanted to get rid of — salvaged, overstocked, closed out, irregular. Customers never knew what they were going to find, and that was part of the plan.
Building #19 was founded in 1964 by the irrepressible Gerry Elovitz — he has long been known as Jerry Ellis — along with the late Harry Andler. Globe correspondent Colman Herman caught up with the 86-year-old Elovitz at his Weymouth store, where the walls are decorated with signs such as “Free Delivery (to your car)” and
“If you can’t find what you’re looking for, buy something else.” Here are edited excerpts from their conversation.
■ What led to the filing of the bankruptcy case?
I was like an Underwood typewriter in a world of computers. We woke up one day and the world had just outgrown us. For instance, I guess I was too dumb to adapt to technology to use for such things as managing our inventory. Also, our business model was outdated. Our core business came from salvage, but a lot of merchandise is made overseas now, and when something gets damaged in China they don’t pick up the phone and call us.
Consumers are buying lot of stuff on the Internet nowadays, and we often didn’t have enough of an item to sell that way. Add to that the fact that salvage is now being offered on the Internet to everyone with a computer. Also, there are not that many warehouse fires because warehouses are built safer these days, and there’s better firefighting equipment. All this means that there was less salvaged merchandise available for me to buy. We have been on a downhill slope for 10 years, and haven’t shown a profit for a long time.
■ How are you feeling emotionally about the bankruptcy?
I certainly don’t feel good about it. But you have to play the hand you’re dealt. What else can you do? But I’ve had a great run. Many lucky things have happened to me along the way, and I was able to recognize them and make the most of them. I’m a very, very, very rich man — not financially, but I have a wonderful wife, three kids, seven grandchildren, and 13 great-grandchildren. That’s what’s most important to me.
■ Talk a little about some of the oddball products you have sold through the years.
We had two-piece suits with a jacket and vest, but no pants. 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!
Then there was what we called Mickey Sticks. They were wooden sticks with a white cap on the top, as I recall. We had no idea what they were used for, but if you wanted a Mickey Stick, we had the exclusive. We named them Mickey Sticks after the guy we bought them from.
■ We’ve heard you weren’t afraid to raise Cain in your younger days.
I liked to have a good time. In the Army, I made PFC three times and was busted twice. 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.
■ So what are you going to do now with your life?
The truth is I don’t know what’s going to happen, but by no means am I throwing in the towel. We’re going to take a look at a whole range of options. We may reorganize and come back as Building #19, but with fewer stores.
I am certain of one thing — even though I’m 86 years old, I’m not going to just sit around and read the newspaper over and over again. I want to somehow keep parts of the business going if I can. At my age, it’s much harder for me to play golf, which I’m terrible at anyhow.
I’ve had a wonderful time in running Building #19, and I’d like to keep having a wonderful time.
I also have some other ideas. I have a lot of empty warehouses and store space. So I’m thinking about running some ads saying, “Partners wanted.”
And if somebody can come up with a business idea that might be profitable, I would consider financing it.