We are standing in Fields of Pikesville on Reisterstown Road. It is the kind of place where kids come to buy their first piece of candy and then come back with their grandchildren for the same thing.
The store has been here since 1892, remodeled many times and expanded, but still sitting on the same property. The Levin family has owned it since 1946 and Jeff Levin, 45, the current general manager, is standing here talking to me.
Naturally, the talk is about the economy. It is inescapable. It is not only the stuff of magazine covers ("How Safe Is Your Job?") and newspaper stories ("Recession Fears Have Some People Depressed And Acting Erratically") but also of popular TV shows. (" 'Thirtysomething': Miles assigns the ghoulish task of firing people to Michael, who's haunted by the plummeting company spirit.")
And I take it as a sure sign of a troubled economy that I am here in Fields to autograph books and it seems we have a few more books than book-buyers. This, even though any sane person would realize that a $19.95 book autographed by me in 1990 could be worth at least $20 by the year 2000. (WARNING: This is NOT a guarantee.)
Levin, who gave up his law practice to run Fields with his mother, Ruth, after his father, Norman, died in 1975, has an MBA as well as his law degree from Columbia University. He keeps up with business publications and enjoys talking about economic theory.
Which would make him about as interesting to talk to as your average tree stump, except Levin sees things about the economy others miss. And he is likely to say things like: "I suspect one reason the country is in such terrible retail shape is the cutoff of illegal immigration."
And while I am formulating a devastating follow-up question like "Huh?" he explains by saying: "Illegal immigrants formed an underground economy that was propping things up, as well as forming a labor pool. This is largely gone now."
Levin also points out that the AIDS epidemic is hurting the economy in ways many never think about. "The 100,000 or so people who are dead from AIDS are not living, working and buying things," he says. "And a number of those people were a very creative part of our society. There is speculation that the fashion industry has done so poorly over the last few years because some of their most creative talent is no longer among us."
Though fundamentally an optimist -- more of this later -- Levin has seen tough times coming locally for a few years now. And it had nothing to do with oil prices or the S&L crisis. It had to do with population.
"In 1986 and 1987, over a million square feet of competitive retail space was put on the market in this area with a non-substantial rise in population," Levin says. "You can see the effects. You ride up and down the corridor, up and down Reisterstown Road, and you see the vacant stores."
People edge past us down the aisles of Fields clutching small bags. Others head for the family restaurant in the back, where the milkshakes are still famous. Fields is better off than many stores. It is not a sticker-shock kind of place. People don't come in, look at the price of a tube of lipstick or a bottle of aspirin and faint.
But Fields, like all small retail stores, needs population as close as possible, three miles being considered the prime reach. And, in fact, the population around Fields has increased. But not as much as the new retail space has increased. Which means more and more competition for the same dollars.
And people are tight with their dollars these days. They have to be. "It's not gasoline prices," Levin says. "My own view is that the gas hike is temporary. The other problems are much more important, like health care and insurance costs. That's an enormous drain on everybody. Health-care costs have gone up three, four times since 1980, despite the fact people are getting less in their health-care plans. And every dollar people have to pay for health care is one dollar less for the economy."
Levin has to smile ruefully when people talk of the "coming" recession. "We are in a recession right now," he says. "If you take a look at the financial headlines of the last three or four months, you have to go back to the 1930s to find comparable headlines. Go check it out."
I will take his word for it. I don't really want to see Depression headlines. My parents, like Levin's parents, were the children of the Depression, and this shaped them. I earned my first dollar when I was 11 by mowing lawns. I wanted to spend it on baseball cards, but my mother made me take it to a bank and open an account. "God forbid there should be another Depression and you'll need it someday," she said.
She and her generation were never able to forget the Depression. And now the question is whether a whole new generation will get the chance to learn about one.