He walked in without knocking and shut the door behind him. I looked up from the greatest column ever half-written and the sugarless bubble gum nearly dropped from my mouth. This guy was 135 years old if he was a day.

The hair was steel gray. The glasses were granny. The movements were a little doddering. But the eyes said: "I don't finish second."

"Mr. Levey," said the man, in a foghorn bass, "my name is Julius Garfinckel."

"It's an honor, Mr. Garfinckel," I said, as I shook his hand. "I've always admired your stores, and the obvious skill with which you built them. But, um, uh, Mr. Garfinckel, I'm a little surprised to see you here. Didn't you die in 1936, sir?"

"Yes, yes, but you know what they say about retailers. We never die. We simply spend a long time taking inventory."

"Of course. Well, what can I do for you, sir?"

"I'll be blunt. I want to leak a story to you."

"Will I need a tape recorder?"

"All you will need," declared Julius Garfinckel, "is a pair of ears." He sat down and stared at the ceiling. But he was obviously seeing F Street in the first third of the century.

"We were the greatest," the old man said. "The retailer against whom all others were measured. I still can't believe what has happened."

I cleared my throat. "Well, sir, you know, the old rules changed, and a lot of your management didn't adapt," I said. "F Street hasn't been the whole ballgame since the late 1960s. The suburban consumer became king. And in many cases, he didn't want to buy fine Garfinckel's merchandise anymore. I mean, take a look along Rockville Pike some Saturday, sir. High fashion is a Nike T-shirt, a scroungy bathing suit and a pair of flip-flops from some half-price giveaway night at Pizza Hut."

Mr. Garfinckel surprised me by standing up, walking behind me and clapping me hard on the left shoulder blade.

"Mr. Levey," he said. "that's it! That's exactly what I've been trying to explain to all my old staff at the, ahem, retirement home up in the sky."

"You're not going to launch a takeover bid for Pizza Hut, are you?"

"No, Mr. Levey," said the old man. "But I am going to try to bring Garfinckel's back. In a new, shiny, contemporary mode, of course."

"What a story!," I yelped as I picked up the phone and started to dial the city editor. But a gnarled hand yanked the receiver from my hand and slammed it down.

"This story will be leaked to you only if you promise not to publish it before our financing is put together," said the old man. "I meet with Baruch and Rockefeller right after I leave you."

"I'm listening," I said, like a chastened child.

"We won't dump the Garfinckel's name entirely," said Mr. G. "We'll simply improve upon it. We plan to call the new stores {and here he paused for effect} Garf Marts!"

"Garf Marts? Sounds like something a Ninja Turtle carries on his weapons belt. What'll you sell?"

"The same stuff you see on Rockville Pike every Saturday. Casual, shloonky clothing. No more Hart, Schaffner & Marx suits. Today's consumer doesn't even wear one of those to his father's funeral. Today, the consumer wants the prices and ambiance of K mart and the reliability of the old F Street Garfinckel's. You might say it's an idea made in heaven."

I smiled. For a guy pushing 140, Mr. G. had a snappy wit.

"We'll do it the same way those retailers on all the suburban strips do it. Grating announcements of storewide specials every 10 minutes. Buddy Holly's greatest hits, rerecorded by some lounge-lizard band and piped in at top volume. Fluorescent lights so bright that they make you want to buy something just to get out of there. Nineteen-year-old managers who are all named Chip and who think men's sneakers might be on Aisle 9, but they're, like, not exactly sure, you know? It can't miss!"

"What about promotion?"

"We'll advertise incessantly on Q-107 and DC-101. We'll have a bored-looking Redskin signing autographs in the lobby of every store every Saturday. We'll give sun visors to every customer under 4, and they'll be guaranteed to fall apart by the time Mom and the baby get to the streetcar stop. We'll be huge!"

"A very interesting plan, Mr. Garfinckel. But, uh, gosh, I don't know how to tell you this . . . ."

"Out with it!"

"There haven't been any streetcars here since 1963."

Mr. Garfinckel sat down and plopped his head into his hands. "I should have known it would never work," he said. "Fifty-four years out of things, you're going to miss one once in a while. But tell me this."

"Yes, sir?"

"Arthur Adler and the Washington Star, they're still doing all right, aren't they?"

"Mr. Garfinckel," I said, "we need to talk."