Mat Brown makes his living poking fun at the man who signs his paycheck. He's dressed him up as Elvis, Pinocchio, The Great Pumpkin and Buddha and parades him around into half a million homes, each week. But for Brown and boss Jerry Ellis of Building #19, it's been a perfect match, as chief illustrator for Building #19 and its irreverent advertising brochures, Brown. 53, churns out caricatures of founder Ellis, while "making the store's mishmash of merchandise look good. The Building #19 catalogs printed on newsprint and cluttered with detailed drawings, captions and in house jokes, read like a comic book, with Ellis as the superhero. The story lines, weaved through the advertisements, describe some of the truckloads of "stuff' that has just arrived. It's not exactly classic advertising. but then again, Building #19 isn't your typical store.
Founded in 1964 as a warehouse store at the old Hingham shipyard, Building #19 has grown into a nine store chain that grosses $80 million a year and employs 1,100 in stores from Manchester, N.H, to Pawtucket R.I. The store bills itself as "America's Laziest and Messiest Department Store... I featuring truckloads of "Good Stuff Cheap," For the uninitiated, that includes discontinued damaged goods that Ellis and his buyers pick up from insurance companies stuck with the oddball merchandise.: } . . , Brown's job IS to illustrate and advertise the merchandise, which can include anything from wallpaper and mismatched mattresses and box springs to wheel-less rolling skates and used Christmas cards.
The advertising, says Ellis, is "an extention of my stores- ~ A customer that reads our circular is not surprised when they come to our stores. They know it's not the Taj Mahal and that neatness is not our best quality." In his corner office, whose entryway is blocked by stacks of empty boxes, Brown keeps the proofs of his old covers, dating back to his first years working for Ellis and the late Harry Andler. In those days, the illustrations pegged the pair like The Odd Couple: Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, with Andler as the straight mall and Ellis as the slob.
When Andler died in the early 1970s, Ellis became the brunt of all the jokes. Flipping through the covers, Brown says some were done on the spur of the moment. Others, like the one that took a swipe at dyslexia, enraged some readers. There was Jerry as Buddha, Jerry as a snake charmer, and Jerry as a fiendish dogfighter shooting down dirigibles marked "high prices," Then there was the classic, Jerry as Elvis, brandishing the slogan, "We've never seen Elvis shopping in Building 19 - he must be dead!" Brown has even gone so far to put Ellis' face on a canine as "Spuds McEllis - the original bargain animal with 15,000 bargains under one WOOF." Puns, Brown says, are a necessity.
"I've had to grow fat and ugly so that I can look like his cartoons," said Ellis, who obviously doesn't mind what Brown does with his likeness. Ellis puts few restrictions on the job, setting only a couple of rules, Brown says. Chief among them is: "Never make fun of the people coming into your stores and spending money," It's Ellis that makes the job fun, says Brown. "He's given me so much leeway I can do stuff for myself that's fun and half the time nobody gets it."
A Scituate native and former junior high school math teacher, Brown first illustrated commercial art in college at the University of Massachusetts. He was an illustrator on a humor magazine called Yahoo. But the appearance in print of a drawing of Uncle Sam gesturing with a finger different from his index finger marked the beginning of the end for the magazine's "short and happy life," Brown said.
In 1957, with a degree in government studies, Brown did a six-month stint in the Army and in 1958, became a math teacher in the Plymouth school system. Government studies is a long way from teaching math, but "they needed math teachers," Brown said, and he was ready to do the job.
About 10 years later, an ad for an illustrator in a Building #19 circular caught his wife's eye. At the time, there was only one BuIlding #19 and few dollars for advertising. The circulars went to 2,500 customers, Brown thought he'd give it a shot, . "I always wanted to do that, but on the other hand, I never thought I could," Ellis took a chance on Brown, who began working part-time on the circulars, "We sat up doing circulars late at night with the snow blowing through the window cracks," said Brown, "It was better than working at the liquor store. You didn't have to lift anything," –
But as the public's penchant for the zany discount merchandiser in. creased. and Ellis started raking in some big bucks, Brown left his job at the high school and began his full time career as an illustrator, "I rescued him from the clutches of the Scituate school system," Ellis jokes about Brown. "He was a terrible speller," Retorts Brown: "We never expected him to become successful" That success has landed Brown his own office, cluttered with art books, drawings and an assortment of toys. He also has two assistants and is one of several partners in the company. Except for a four-week hiatus at Paperama about seven years ago, he has been there ever since.
It was at Paperama that Brown got his first - and probably his last taste of corporate culture. "It was a good offer, and a good organization," he said. The offer also came at a good time: his first daughter was going to college. -Ellis never tried talking Brown out of taking the job, telling him only: "Have lunch with me in six weeks." It took only four before Brown called his former boss.
"They were real," Brown said of Paperama. "They have a real corporate headquarters and they all have desks," But soon Brown was back at his old haunts where none of the desks match, "I'm too young to die," he said of his life in the corporate ranks. "I don't like to dress up unless I'm going to church or somewhere fancy."
Today, Brown's enthusiasm for his job shows even in his walk. Spotting sneakers, chinos and a red polo shirt, Brown bounds up - the stairs of the Building #19 headquarters at Hewitt's Cove Marina to meet a visitor. It is here where he wants to make his living. After all, he says, "This is where most of the fun is."