As the old Pikesville business district works to reinvent itself, longtime store owners might get help from an unlikely source: Target, which is planning to open a retail store on Reisterstown Road, just inside the Beltway.
Anywhere else, such a big-box retailer might intimidate small-business owners. On the other side of Baltimore County, store owners in Bowleys Quarters worry that a new Wal-Mart will put them out of business.
But in Pikesville, where third-generation businesses have survived in a long-stable, predominantly Jewish community, almost any new business is welcome. The county's recent decision to let Minnesota-based Target bypass public scrutiny of its plans met no opposition from Pikesville businesses.
"I think it will help. It will keep shoppers inside the Beltway and may attract others," said Robert Pollokoff, president of The Fedder Co. of Baltimore, which has purchased the former Pikesville fire station in the heart of Pikesville with hopes of converting it into a restaurant.
Pollokoff's company also owns buildings on either side of the fire station, one of which houses a toy store, the other an electronics store. He hopes to expand the parking lot behind his buildings for better access to DeRisio Lane, a short bypass opened last year to relieve traffic on Reisterstown Road.
Despite Reisterstown Road's reputation as a traffic bottleneck, and a smattering of vacant storefronts over the years, downtown Pikesville has held its own, even as many customers have moved north to Owings Mills. That's no accident. The commercial district has promoted itself as an eating destination. In 1999, the former Pikes Theater was converted into a gourmet Italian grocery and restaurant, joining more than a dozen other restaurants in the area.
Specialty stores selling luggage, French perfume, Hungarian china, and fine brassieres, and owners who know their customers by first name, also have helped the business district retain its appeal.
Stephen Zimmerman is the third-generation owner of Howard Luggage in the 1300 block of Reisterstown Road. The store has been there for 21 years, but operated out of other Baltimore locations dating from 1914, when Zimmerman's grandfather opened a shop on Howard Street.
"We're working on third-generation, fourth-generation customers. I am selling bar mitzvah gifts to children of the children I sold bar mitzvah gifts," said Zimmerman, who, with other third-generation business owners, will be honored next month by the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce.
Zimmerman and other specialty-store owners say their merchandise is of higher quality and more "upscale" than the brands sold at Target, so they don't feel threatened by the store, which sells everything from potato chips to shoes and luggage.
He does worry about Target customers compounding traffic problems on Reisterstown Road and hopes that the widening of the bridge over the Beltway will bring some relief.
Another longtime anchor in downtown Pikesville is Fields, which has been in business for 109 years. Three years ago, owners Jeffrey Levin, his wife, Dani, and his mother, Ruth Hollander, sold the pharmacy component - once the store's mainstay - to the busy Giant Food around the corner on Old Court Road.
Today, Fields is a popular restaurant, card and gift shop, and a cosmetics center that sells exclusive lines of European makeup and perfume.
At the store's brightly lighted makeup counters, Dani Levin greets many of her estimated 5,000 customers by first name. The restaurant, which advertises "old-fashioned roast beef brisket," a Jewish specialty, is almost always busy.
Jeffrey Levin doesn't see Target as a threat, either, saying that the retailer's chief competition more likely would be Giant or Rite Aid.
"I don't see how it'll hurt, and it might help," he said, by drawing new customers to the area.
Levin, who virtually grew up at Fields when his father ran it as a pharmacy and soda fountain, remembers decades ago when there were no vacant storefronts between Slade Avenue and Old Court Road. Despite the county's beautification efforts - new lighting, landscaping and sidewalks have been added - he frets about the unsightly utility poles and power lines strung like spaghetti above Reisterstown Road.
Still, Fields and other stores continue to thrive. The Chamber of Commerce has increased its membership in recent years, and the business community is expanding its "restaurant row" concept with the addition of the fire station.
Levin's mother, Ruth Hollander, has watched the survival of Pikesville since her husband bought Fields in 1946.
"It's been a struggle, but we stayed here and worked," she said. "We're not concerned about competition. Every independent business has its own personality."