Some of my favorite times were spent rummaging through the piles of sale items in the Manchester store, even way back when it was located in the former Mammoth Mills building. The store was known for selling many less-than-perfect items at drastically discounted prices. Its slogan was, “Good Stuff, Cheap!”
Most of my Star Wars collection and my husband’s trading-card collection were purchased at Building 19 over the years.
I can remember chuckling at some of the items in the store, however. One day I happened to spot a rack of pretty flannel nightgowns that were priced so low, I thought there had to be some mistake. I soon discovered why they were so cheap. When I took one off the rack and held it up, I saw that the entire hem was burned off. In fact, all of the nightgowns were in the same condition. That’s because the store often purchased merchandise at fire sales.
In the late 1980s, I worked a mystery shopper, where I was assigned to go to different stores and restaurants and then fill out reports about my experiences. I was delighted when I was assigned to shop at all of the Building 19 stores in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. I mean, imagine actually being paid to go shopping in my favorite store? It was my dream job.
All of the stores I’d mystery shopped prior to Building 19 had specific forms to fill out, but Jerry Ellis, the founder of Building 19, insisted upon first-person essays. He wanted to read stories – honest narratives – not forms. He also wanted me to interact with a clerk in every department of each store, and then make a purchase so I could evaluate the cashiers.
What usually ended up happening was I’d spend more money than I earned. My two favorite departments in Building 19 were office/stationery and toys. I always came out of the store with my arms so loaded with bags of stickers, stationery, books, dolls, action figures and Star Wars spaceships, I barely could carry them. Then, at the end of the week I’d wonder why I didn’t have enough money to pay my bills.
I also loved to browse in the Building 19 samples department, which featured exclusive fashions by famous designers. I can remember drooling over the dresses, most of which were so small (because they had been worn by fashion models) that even if I’d lived on nothing but celery sticks and water for a month, I still couldn’t have squeezed my big toe into any of them.
And I got a kick out of the store’s weekly newspaper ads, which were drawn in cartoon form and usually had silly captions. One swimsuit ad, for example, showed a cartoon of a woman wearing a bikini and posing in knee-deep water, while sharks wearing inner tubes circled her. Several times, however, the ads caused controversy or offended people, such as when the store advertised a sale on men’s “wife beater” shirts, or it printed an ad backwards especially for people with dyslexia.
The store also offered free coffee to its shoppers. I hate to say it, but the coffee was about as appealing as swamp water and featured, according to the sign, “real fake cream.” I think the store realized how bad its coffee was because there often were signs near it that said things like, “Don’t complain about our coffee! Someday, you’ll be old and weak, too!”
About 20 years ago, the store held a contest that offered a cash prize for the best shopper-created Building 19 video commercial. Not only would the winner receive a cash prize, his or her commercial actually would be aired on TV.
I decided I had nothing to lose by trying, so one night, while my husband was sound asleep, I grabbed my video camera and set it up on a tripod. Then I searched through the house and found a variety of merchandise I’d purchased at Building 19 and set it out on the kitchen table. I had no real plan or script in mind, I just turned on the camera, got behind the table and started talking.
“It was the day before payday,” I said to the camera, “and you know how that is! I was pretty broke. Still, I went to Building 19, just to browse, and I ended up buying all of this stuff!” I made a dramatic sweep of my hand to indicate my haul, which included everything from a sweater, teapot and shoes to a stack of books and a blanket. Back then, Building 19 accepted only cash, no credit cards, which was why I emphasized being broke.
Then I continued, “The next day, I got paid and went shopping at a big-name department store. And for the same amount of money I spent at Building 19, I was able to buy this!” I held up a pair of cheap-looking knit gloves, frowned at them and tossed them over my shoulder.
That was the whole commercial. I packed it up and sent it off to the contest the next day without another thought…and without telling anyone.
No one was more shocked than I was to learn that my commercial had made the finals. The finalists’ commercials then were shown on a public-access station in Massachusetts (which, unfortunately, I couldn’t get here) and viewers were asked to vote for their favorite.
For reasons I still can’t fathom, my commercial won. I received a nice check, and my commercial was aired on TV. I thoroughly enjoyed my 15 minutes of fame.
But I had to laugh at an unexpected prize I also received – a bottle of Building 19’s “Chateau de Cheapeau” champagne. It said on the label, “Vintage: Thursday. An ideal accompaniment to partridge, pheasant, rack of lamb, Ring Dings, Twinkies and Moon Pies. After drinking, stay away from open flame.”
Yep, I’ll really miss Building 19 because it holds so many fond memories.
But I still have that sealed bottle of Chateau de Cheapeau champagne as a souvenir.
And I just might open it someday, even though it probably will taste like flat vinegar.