Harry Kemper is an old-time small businessman who's always loved the feel of pencil on paper. He's loved even more knowing that his desk and cabinets were filled with handwritten records. It's always given him a sense of, well, security.

So when Sonny Delp, another small businessman who shares an office with Harry in Northern Virginia, first tried to talk him into buying a personal computer to do the office accounting and billing work, you can guess Harry's reaction:

"No way," he said.

But two years ago, Sonny got Harry to see a demonstration of what a personal computer using software written especially for his kind of business could do. And Harry was stunned.

"I couldn't believe what it did," he recalls. "It did other work that used to take me hours in just a couple of minutes."

Within a couple of weeks they had one in the office. "Now my biggest fear is that the power will go down and I won't be able to use the computer," he says with a laugh.

The story behind how Harry Kemper and Sonny Delp, both newspaper distributers, ended up with personal computers is typical.

All told, there are some 350 independent newspaper distributers in the Washington Metropolitan area. A few years back, one of them bought a personal computer to play around with. When it struck him that he might be able to use it to do his billing and other accounting work, he asked a neighbor, a retired government programmer to help him write a program. The result was a program tailored just to his business.

When a few other distributers expressed an interest in the program, like Harry and Sonny, the two decided to go into business selling it.

Today, counting Harry and Sonny, between 10 and 15 percent of all area distributers use the program. And to listen to Harry, it's not hard to understand why.

"When we were on the manual system" of accounting and billing, he says, "we lost so much money because people could call and say, 'Well, I paid that bill.' There was no way for us to check because we couldn't keep our billing records that detailed. And even if we could find something that might help straighten out the matter, we couldn't be sure it was always up to date.

"Since we got the computer," he says, "we've been able to tell people, 'Let's see. I show the last check from you coming in on such and such a date and it was check number 340.' I've found that the system is 100 percent accurate."

"We used to try to keep track of our bad debts but it was really hard," says Delp. "We would have to look back through all these records and you always missed some. Now we can tell the computer to print out all bills that have outstanding debts of, say, $16 or more whenever we want."

That meant a huge savings, he says, since before, using the handwritten records, they used to have as much as $9,000 in outstanding debts at any one time. Today, it rarely exceeds $1,000, he says.

There were other efficiencies made possible, too, says Harry. "It used to take us two weeks to do our billing. Now the computer let's us do it in six hours.

"I just stand in awe when it prints out those bills," he says.