This post is heavily based on “A business from salvage, ingenuity” Lowell Sun, July 19, 1977 — Written by Estelle Shanley, the Sun’s Burlington correspondent. Edited and updated by Burlington Retro.
Where else but Building 19 ½ could a customer purchase an Anne Klein-designed stewardess uniform for Pan Am, or a pair of green patent leather designer shoes for $5, or four table tennis paddles for a dollar, or a plastic bag filled with surgical gloves, or five pre-washed panties for a dollar, or size 58 overalls bearing the name “Spoony”? And where else but a Building 19 store would a large painted sign read, “Our business is like sex. When it’s good, it’s wonderful. And when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.”
When the John Hancock tower started shedding windows in 1973 due to an engineering flaw, Building 19½ sold some of the windows. They measured four feet by eleven feet and weighed 500 pounds.
The Metropolitan Rod & Gun Club in Albany, NH cut some of them into smaller sections for this cabin:
The Building 19 chain sold every square yard of astroturf from Schaefer Stadium. Last week, the chain sold wooden frames that usually contain the box spring for a double bed. Burlington’s store manager, Mike Hanelt, says people bought them to make arborways, or utilized the slats (which sold for a nickel each) as tomato or vegetable stakes.
In less than 12 days, the Building 19 chain will celebrate its 13th year in business. “I could tell you how I got into the business by impressing you with marketing studies we didn’t conduct,” says co-founder Jerry Ellis, “but the truth is I was fired from G.E.M. stores.” He retraces his words and a slow, dry and very subtle wit emerges. “Actually, I don’t want to say I was fired from G.E.M. Let’s say they told me they would never pay me again.”
As he cleaned out his desk at G.E.M., packing his belongings into cardboard boxes, he received a call from his friend Harry Andler, whom he describes as looking like Arthur Fiedler, “although a lot less talented, and less handsome than I am.” Andler wanted Ellis to view a fire-gutted furniture warehouse in Rhode Island to determine if it was salvageable. Turned out that the elevator, the stairs and the entire core building from the basement right through the roof had been gutted, but “around the rim on all four floors there was furniture in pretty good condition,” Ellis recalls. He immediately hired the football team from Westerly High School to remove the furniture, a feat he’s not entirely sure he would tackle now. The crew transported the furniture back to Massachusetts and rented half a floor at the Hingham Shipyard, in a place called Building 19, and sold the furniture.
Andler was already in the railroad salvage merchandise business, and Ellis, caught in a job search for himself, could only manage to keep the Building 19 store open two days a week. However, the business grew and grew, as the pair advertised auctions for their merchandise. More salvaged material came to their attention. Ellis and Andler rented more space and eventually opened other locations. “We deal directly in cash and the insurance companies, who are anxious to settle after a disaster, are eager to do business with us,” confides Ellis. All goods brought for sale are inspected by appropriate agencies. The store also has a money-back guarantee, so “We’re not fooling the customer,” says Ellis, who contends that if a customer finds an item cheaper elsewhere, the customer will receive a bottle of champagne.
Ellis predicts that following the blackout in New York, insurance companies will be looking to unload vandalized and fire-damaged merchandise. “We take the good and the bad, and if it’s borderline, we just send it to charity.”
Ellis lives in Newton. He has three grown children and a wife who works in special education. He works about 30 hours a week and does get away for golf and tennis too. He says modestly, without conviction, however, that he plays both games poorly. Ellis, like Andler, has always been in retail sales, with the exception of his “undistinguished career in the Army.” With mock solemnity he reveals he made Private First Class three times.
Building 19 ½ in Burlington serves coffee free to the patrons. The same practice is carried out in the other stores. Ellis admits it’s expensive, “but it gives a nice feeling.” He says when the prices of coffee went up, he tried to drink tea but couldn’t make it and obviously did not think the customers could make it either.
The stores are messy, a point constantly featured with humor in the advertisement circulars that Jerry writes. When he is asked about the number of people employed by all three stores, he says, “You’re asking the question wrong. We have 308 on the payroll but only 20 percent work. The rest goof off.”
Manager Mike Hanelt tells Burlington Retro he has one distinct memory from his brief stint at the store. “I was living in Worcester at the time and commuted to Burlington daily. One of my most vivid memories was the Blizzard of ’78. I drove to Burlington to open the store, but closed it a couple hours later at 11. On the way home, I barely made it off Route 128 before it was closed, and headed west on the Mass Pike to Route 9 in my ’68 Chevy Impala. The snow was blowing so hard, it was getting under the hood, wetting the plug wires. So I was blowing black smoke all the way home. The worst part was the extremely long and steep hill on Route 9 just before entering Worcester proper. I have to say an angel was guiding me home that day. The car made it to the street I lived on, but by that time the snow was so deep, I left it in the middle of the road, where it sat for days.”
Mat Brown of Scituate, a school teacher and the artist/ humorist behind the distinctive Building 19 marketing materials, recounts his (mis)adventures with the company. The video is long and poorly lit, but worth every minute.