Ernie Miller, a 38-year-old software developer in Silver Spring, offers a telling clue as to how www.craigslist.org became the Internet's go-to place to solve life's vexing problems.

He posted a note on the Web site's bulletin boards a few weeks ago, seeking people willing to let him test his stand-up comic routine at their events free. Half a dozen folks replied via e-mail, including an offer to perform at a Christmas party.

"I would say I have had a better response from Craigslist than from any other attempt at promotion," said Miller, who described himself as "fairly new to stand-up" and his act as "absolutely clean.''

Miller is among the growing number of people who are using Craigslist, a freewheeling Internet marketplace, to fulfill their varied needs. In 1995, computer specialist Craig Newmark founded the site, which evolved from a simple e-mail list he created to communicate with friends in the San Francisco area. Craigslist now has sites to serve 45 urban areas, with Washington as one of its fastest growing.

In addition to seeking jobs and housing, Washington area residents have used Craigslist in recent weeks to get rid of a dental chair cluttering a Potomac garage, hunt for long-lost childhood pals in Alexandria, find a Korean tutor in Gaithersburg, and locate a bilingual justice of the peace to perform a wedding in French and English.

Part of the site's appeal is that it still feels like the early days of the Web, with a text-only design and simple publishing tools that predate the flashy graphics, big ads and other commercial flourishes prevalent on leading Internet sites today.

But users fear that could change after last week's announcement that eBay, one of the giants of Internet commerce, has bought a 25 percent stake in the tiny company for an undisclosed sum. Users have been grousing in Craigslist's open forums that eBay may push to inject advertising and make other changes that would spoil the site's relaxed, back-porch atmosphere.

Newmark insists that such worries are unfounded. "If anything, all this questioning is just reinforcing our sense of our current mission," he said this week.

As for what that mission might be, Newmark said it's about creating a culture of trust and community, which may explain why nine-year-old Craigslist survived the dot-com bust, while others offering similar services did not.

"We view ourselves as giving people a break, encouraging other people to give each other a break, and doing so in a real honest way," he said.

For starters, Craigslist lets people post most stuff free. It charges employers in the San Francisco Bay area $75 to list job openings, and this month added a $25 fee for job listings in New York and Los Angeles. The company says it is profitable but does not disclose its financial information.

According to the company, people post more than 2.5 million classified ads and more than 100,000 jobs to the network each month. The Washington site pulls more than 300,000 visitors and generates 80,000 new listings each month, up 300 percent in the past year.

Chief executive Jim Buckmaster said the firm does not plan to collect fees in other categories, except possibly for apartment rentals in New York City. Eventually it will charge for job listings in other cities, but not until a particular market has a critical mass of job seekers.

In the past, Craigslist has spurned all venture capital offers and expressions of interest from companies wanting to buy into the 14-employee firm that operates from two floors in an old San Francisco home. EBay's investment came about after a former employee to whom Newmark had granted a chunk of his closely held company decided to unload his shares. He approached eBay, and "then eBay was considerate enough to come to us."

Buckmaster recalled: "One of the first things they said was they would have absolutely zero interest in making a purchase unless we thought they could be a good partner to us."

Newmark and Buckmaster said they hope eBay will offer guidance to the much smaller company on ways to thwart fraudsters, expand internationally and develop more precise search tools.

For its part, eBay is looking for insights into the free-form listing model that Craigslist popularized, in which people trade privately by whatever rules they choose. It differs sharply from the rules-heavy auction and fixed-price formats eBay offers. "We want to learn more about the traditional classified-style business online," said eBay spokesman Hani Durzy.

More broadly, the eBay deal also highlights how hungrily the Internet's commercial heavyweights are eyeing the gigantic market for local commerce.

Companies are awakening to how the Internet enables new forms of personal trading, including transactions that rarely occurred in the past because they were too much bother.

Industry analysts say the newspaper industry is running scared, since classified revenue accounts for a big share of its revenue -- and a lot of job advertising has already migrated online.

"For decades, the marketplace for cars, jobs and homes has been the newspaper classifieds,'' said Peter Zollman, a media consultant in Altamonte Springs, Fla. "But the way commerce is conducted by individuals is changing." He said Craigslist and similar Internet-only companies make it hard for newspapers to compete, since they let people list many things free.

But Gordon Borrell, a media consultant in Portsmouth, Va., does not consider Craigslist a threat to newspapers, even though he agrees that classified ads are moving to the Web. One day this week, Borrell counted the local jobs offered on Craigslist and compared them with those available at the Web sites of newspapers in several cities; he found the newspaper sites had nearly 10 times as many listings. "When people are looking for a job, they want to go to the place with the most jobs," he said.

Craigslist is about more than jobs, of course. It's also about connecting people offline, and helping them find stuff in new ways that are less structured than, say, newspaper classifieds or Internet sites like Monster.com.

People tend to write stories around their wants and needs on Craigslist, and the edgy, personal and often humorous tales led to the site's appeal.

In recent weeks, Washington residents posted messages to Craigslist about a stray cockatiel found near Seven Corners, a Kodak digital camera lost near the Washington Monument, tips on where to throw English darts near Manassas and "nude housecleaning services" offered at $75 an hour by a 20-year-old gay man.

Newmark said he "obsesses" over customer service and spends hours every day answering e-mail from users, often sitting in a public cafe and tapping out replies on his tiny Zaurus handheld computer wirelessly connected to the Internet.

To Newmark, the site's appeal resembles that of the TV sitcom "Seinfeld."

"In our culture, we are missing that sense of neighborhood and even family, and we help a little bit regarding that," Newmark said.

Leslie Walker's e-mail is walkerl@washpost.com.