Garfinckel's, the struggling local retailer, told some creditors yesterday that it intends to seek protection under federal bankruptcy law in an effort to reorganize its finances and rebuild its business.

Kenneth Swaim, president of Washington Ventures Inc., said he received a telephone call yesterday from Richard Trutanic, a director of Garfinckel's, informing him that the retailer intended to file a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition. Washington Ventures, a subsidiary of Washington Bancorporation, is a minor creditor, according to Swaim.

At least one local bank received a similar call from Trutanic yesterday morning. However, a spokesman for the bank, which did not wish to be identified, said notice of a bankruptcy filing had not been received by the close of business yesterday.

In recent years, Garfinckel's has been battling to overcome multiple changes in ownership, a hefty debt load taken on when the company was purchased in a leveraged buyout and intense new competition from aggressive national retailers such as Seattle's Nordstrom and New York-based R.H. Macy & Co. Through it all, the store's image and market share have suffered.

Garfinckel's is owned by an investment group headed by Middle Eastern investor Wafic Said, who also owns a major stake in Washington Bancorp, the parent of troubled National Bank of Washington. A spokesman for Sifcorp, an investment company controlled by Said, declined comment.

Under Chapter 11 bankruptcy status, Garfinckel's would not be expected to close. Instead, the filing would give the retail chain protection from creditors while it tried to reorganize its operations and develop a new business plan acceptable to its creditors and other parties.

As of late yesterday afternoon, no Garfinckel's filings had been received by area bankruptcy courts in the District, Maryland or Virginia. But sources said that the office of District bankruptcy Judge S. Martin Teel Jr. had been notified that a bankruptcy filing from Garfinckel's would soon arrive.

Garfinckel's executives declined to comment on the situation, but they reportedly have been huddled in closed-door meetings all week. Sources said Garfinckel's Chairman George P. Kelly has scheduled a meeting this morning with top store executives.

Several employees at the Garfinckel's flagship store on F Street NW said yesterday they had not been informed of any possible bankruptcy filing. However, one employee said the company had scheduled an announcement for 3 p.m. before postponing it until today.

Garfinckel's was purchased by Allied Stores Inc. in a hostile takeover in the early 1980s. In 1986, Campeau Corp. bought Allied. The following year, Campeau sold Garfinckel's for $95 million to Raleigh Stores Corp. in a leveraged buyout with Said participating as the major investor. In the Garfinckel's leveraged buyout, the company was acquired using mostly borrowed funds. While the interest was expected to be repaid through cash generated by Garfinckel's operations and asset sales, the deal apparently has run into trouble.

Many trace Garfinckel's latest problems to the nine-store chain's sale to Raleigh Stores Corp., a company managed by Neil J. Fox. Fox gave Garfinckel's a more upscale image, and critics say the move alienated working women who were customers and hurt the chain's financial performance. Fox was replaced by Said and other investors in 1988, and Kelly was brought in to revive the store.

Garfinckel's is not the only retailer suffering financially. Campeau is mired in bankruptcy proceedings, as are numerous other retailers nationwide and in the Washington area. The Richmond-based Miller & Rhoads retail chain, which once was owned by Garfinckel's, has ceased to exist. The Fantle's drugstore chain is operating under Chapter 11.

Over the past year, many top retailing executives have indicated that Garfinckel's was the most vulnerable retailer in the competitive Washington market, characterizing its situation as a life-and-death struggle.

"It's always been a good specialty store with a loyal, dedicated customer base, and even with that it is hard going in this market," said Robert J. Mulligan, vice chairman of Woodward & Lothrop, the local department store chain. "And I hope that if this happens, they come out of it, if this has to be the solution to some of their problems."

"They have been saddled with buyout debt and been over-leveraged at a time of intense competition, so this might be a classic story of the 1980s," said David Waters, chief executive of Baltimore-based Jos. A. Banks Clothiers Inc. and a former top Garfinckel's official. "That the business has diminished so much because of that is sad."

To battle back, Garfinckel's recently announced plans to improve its fortunes with multimillion-dollar renovations and openings of new stores. The strategy involved sizable reductions in square footage at existing stores and the opening of streamlined new stores.

Sources said one of Garfinckel's largest creditors is First City Bancorporation of Houston, which is run by Robert Abboud, a close friend of Said's. It is unclear how much of Garfinckel's debt is owned by First City. Staff writers Sharon Walsh, Joe l Glenn Brenner, Anne Swardson and David Hilzenrath contributed to this report.