It is with great sadness that I write that Building 19 – a Massachusetts institution – is going to bite the dust. If you haven’t heard of Building 19, you missed something super. Building 19 was a local chain department store, which was nothing more than a huge warehouse filled with fantastic low, low, low priced items. They bought overstock and in some cases, slightly damaged goods, and always offered incredible deals. The thing that made it so fantastic was the “thrill of the hunt.” Whenever you entered – maybe looking for cans of pumpkin or high-thread-count pillowcases – chances are, you wound up going out the door with huge containers of Windex for 99 cents, $500 crocodile shoes for $49, and a men’s Italian suit for only $69. I know, because indeed, I actually bought all of those bargains there. I once stood in line at 6AM in the morning, waiting for the 9AM opening, so I could be first in line to purchase their Ethan Allen overstock. I bought a gorgeous – and I mean you’re-going-to-gasp-it’s so-gorgeous — $3,000 Italian bedroom mirror for $650. It was a place where I went to purchase cereal, and came home with a cashmere sweater that looked like a million bucks.
Another great aspect to Building 19 – perhaps its best-known trait – was how owner Jerry Ellis made fun of his own institution. All through the store, there were signs saying that he was “Elvis in Disgraceland” and that the stores were the “Little Shop of Horrors.” It was where you went to find “good stuff cheap.” If you want this month’s marketing tip – take your cue from Building 19: Making fun of your brand can sometimes be the best advertising ever.
Many times, Building 19 advertised their bargains but was not permitted to tell you the name of the brand. Once, when they were selling Burpee sunflower seeds, their advertising department described the brand as “two things you should not do in public.” That’s just hilarious, when you think about it.
Building 19 was iconic. People loved to rave about the bargains that they found there. And for a long, long time, the stores didn’t even accept credit cards, in order to keep prices down. You were forced to pay cash.
Now they are going under. Too much competition from national discount retailers such as Walmart, and too little loyalty from customers. As a Boston marketing consultant, who loves creative strategies, I’m sad to see such an unusual place go. They referred to themselves as “America’s laziest and messiest department store,” and you know what? I loved it.