Photographs by William Morgan
The uniqueness of New England is taking another hit as yet one more beloved and quirky regional business is unable to survive in a commercial world dominated by the internet, Walmart, and globalization. For just shy of half a century, Building #19 has
sold all sorts of odd lots from warehouses in eastern Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. As its founder Gerry Elovitz, a.k.a. Jerry Ellis, a once unemployed appliance salesman who started the company in 1964, cheerfully boasts, “We profited from mishaps and mistakes.” (Yes, Building #19 did sell the pieces of glass that were removed from Boston’s Hancock Tower for $100 each.)
The store started in a warehouse in the old Hingham Shipyard on Route 3A just 15 miles south of Boston (now the site of a shopping mall, restaurants, condos, and a marina all in cookie cutter buildings that might be in Texas or Oregon as well as New England). Since the structure was already marked Building #19, Ellis saw no point in spending money to paint over the sign. Through the years, the company prided itself on homemade-looking signs featuring critters like the “Good Stuff Chimp” and slogans such as “Free Admission on All Days Ending with the Letter Y” and “We Now Accept Credit Cods.” That freewheeling “Suffer A Little, Save A Lot” approach also characterized Building #19’s actual buildings — old mills and tired industrial structures. (Ellis dubbed his retail emporium “America’s laziest and messiest department store.”)
Yet, the Pawtucket store building has quite a glorious history. This enormous structure on a very flat piece of land had been part of Narragansett Park, a thoroughbred horseracing track. The mile-long oval was built on the site of Rhode Island’s first state airport, named What Cheer (for the greeting with which the Narragansett Indians hailed Roger Williams when he set foot in Providence). The moving of the airport to Warwick coincided with the state’s reinstatement of pari-mutuel betting after a 30-year ban.
Narragansett Park opened on August 1, 1934. Building #19 occupies the main grandstand, but the nearly 200-acre complex had a score of barns and could handle 1,000 horses. (The name carried over from an earlier racetrack in Cranston, Rhode Island, that in 1915 became America’s first paved automobile speedway.) Despite The Great Depression, the track was popular; thoroughbreds such as Whirlaway and Seabiscuit ran there for Newport and New York society in such contests as the King Phillip Handicap and the Jeanne d’Arc Stakes (for fillies).
New England could not sustain a large thoroughbred racing industry after World War II, and by the 1960s the Pawtucket track was barely holding on. It folded in 1978, following a disastrous fire two years before that killed three dozen horses. The playground for the sport of kings was developed as an industrial park and Building 19 moved in. True to Ellis’s laid-back approach to design, one of the boards that posted the racing odds still graces the ceiling above the bargain tables. And a sign at the entrance equates Building #19’s run against the malls and the big box stores as a horse race. Alas, this was a Retail Derby that these Yankee retailers were doomed to lose.
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