As customers peered in through the glass doors, wondering why Garfinckel's downtown store was 20 minutes late in opening yesterday morning, the salespeople gathered among the mannequins and scarf displays to hear personnel director Becki Mann tell them the news was even worse than they had imagined.

Earlier, Chairman George P. Kelly had delivered the same message to buyers and other employees at an 8 a.m. meeting: Garfinckel's flagship store, two blocks from the White House, would close when its inventory had been sold. Salespersons could stay for a while, but more than 200 others were dismissed immediately -- most of them headquarters staff.

"Today is your last day," Kelly told the assembled buyers. One gasped, some cried and all were stunned by the finality of it. Rumors about Garfinckel's financial troubles had been common for the last few months and reports of bankruptcy had been circulating recently. But none had dreamed the store some had worked in for decades would close its doors.

It was clear as soon as customers entered yesterday that something was wrong. Managers strode about the main floor, redeploying clerks to cope with a smaller staff and fewer cash registers. The entrance to the Metropolitan Square complex at the rear of the first floor was blocked off, and security guards patrolled the aisles.

In the handbag department, one 18-year veteran saleswoman broke out a box of chocolates. "We might as well get fat now," she said with tears in her eyes. "Everybody's crying. Everybody's broken-hearted."

On the sales floors, business went on almost as usual. From the fur salon to the swimsuit boutique, sales clerks were on duty, showing their merchandise and discussing different styles with customers. Only in polite undertones did they explain that Garfinckel's charge cards were no longer accepted, and that the store would close earlier than usual that evening.

The scene was less restrained at the employees' entrance, where many who had showed up for work less than two hours before were leaving, jobless. Whole departments were wiped out. The former workers cried, hugged and wished each other luck as they went out the door for the last time.

"I was supposed to start my vacation on Friday," sighed one. Management's letter to the departing employees said severance and vacation pay would be negotiated as part of the eventual bankruptcy agreement; pensions also are to be worked out.

Woodward & Lothrop took out an advertisement in today's Washington Post inviting Garfinckel's employees to come and talk about employment opportunities.

"I'll find something else. I'm just out of college," said one Garfinckel's buyer's assistant who was terminated yesterday. "But I know people who have worked here for 26 years, and 33 years. They are really upset."

At the Garfinckel's store in Springfield Mall, the customary quiet was overlaid with gloom.

A few -- very few -- customers' heels echoed across the tiled floor. Employees with little else to do gathered in quiet clusters to talk about the store's financial troubles. All of them requested anonymity.

"We haven't received any new merchandise for weeks," said one saleswoman who was standing beside some dress racks arranged at odd angles that disguised the sparse selection.

Several of those shopping during lunch hour yesterday said they had made special trips to see the store before going-out-of-business sales marred the genteel atmosphere.

"I used to be so impressed by the downtown store -- the pearls, the women in black crepe dresses. One thinks of it as an institution, when it's just a business," said a self-described longtime customer who declined to give her name.

Other customers took a more philosophical view. "I'm really sorry about it, but I can understand why. There's nobody here," said Leesburg resident Margaret Ervin.

Garfinckel's employees said they were told at a meeting this morning that they can continue working at the Springfield store until it closes in about 60 days. The stores are expected to sell off everything, including the fixtures.

The sales force has already dropped substantially. One saleswoman said the gifts and furnishings section employed as many as 10 people a few years ago and now employs only two or three.

The longtime employees who remain said they feel somewhat at a loss. Some have never worked anywhere else. Most said they hope to stay in retail sales.

The managers of other stores in the mall said they don't expect the closing to have much impact on their business because the store does not draw many new customers to the mall. "It'll take one less person out of the mall that sells jewelry," said James Hester of Merksamer Jewelers.

At the Garfinckel's Ltd. store on Connecticut Ave., which may remain open, shoppers attempting to use store credit cards were told the cards would no longer be honored. But the volume of traffic on the floor of the store was a bit higher than normal, one employee said, apparently because curious shoppers were browsing for bargains.

For veteran employees, the news of the store closings was a crushing blow.

"What a shock," one longtime employee said. "What a shame."

At the F Street store, customers were as pained as the employees. "That beautiful store. I've shopped there since 1944, and I don't know what we'd do without Garfinckel's," said Sarah Schulman of Silver Spring. Echoed a bearded man emerging from the store with a shopping bag: "I've lived here since 1961, and this is as much of a Washington institution as the government is."

Customer Lee Myers took no chances. As soon as she heard the news of the bankruptcy filing yesterday morning, she whizzed in from Bethesda to pick up her fur, which Garfinckel's was storing. "You never know," she said.

Staff writer David A. Vise contributed to this report.

GARFINCKEL'S INC.

Creditor......................Bill...........................Amount

May Centers Inc...............Rent/real estate tax.........$145,007

Glemby International..........Sales commissions.............108,153

Dow, Lohnes & Albertson.......Professional fees.............101,553

Robert Young Associates Inc...Construction costs.............94,481

Georgetown Park Associates....Rent/real estate tax...........73,719

Franconia Associates..........Rent/real estate tax...........72,657

W.C. & A.N. Miller............Rent...........................70,106

I.C.N. USA Inc................Merchandise payable............69,120

Jewelmasters..................Sales commissions..............67,951

Genny.........................Merchandise payable............62,287

CVSOE Inc.....................Merchandise payable............60,473

Lanham Property Investors.....Rent/real estate tax...........50,519

Richland Associates...........Rent...........................47,775

Orrefors Inc..................Merchandise payable............44,234

Godiva Chocolatier............Merchandise payable............38,373

Crane & Co....................Merchandise payable............35,737

Honeywell Protection Services.Security expense...............35,641

Jos. J. Pietrafesa............Merchandise payable............35,538

Finleigh Clothes..............Merchandise payable............33,922

Hartz & Co....................Merchandise payable............33,895

GARFINCKEL'S HOLDING COMPANY

Creditor.............................Bill....................Amount

First Small Business of California...Note payable..........$500,000

Neal Fox.............................Note payable...........364,176

Sunwestern Ventures Co...............Note payable...........250,000

Greater Washington Investments Inc...Note payable...........250,000

Atlantic Venture Partners............Note payable...........250,000

Stephens Group Inc...................Note payable...........250,000

Allied Venture Partnership...........Note payable...........160,000

Allied Investment Corp...............Note payable...........160,000

Washington Ventures..................Note payable...........100,000

Joseph Santalarsci...................Note payable............93,402

SOURCE: Bankruptcy court filing