THE WILLIAMSBURG POTTERY FACTORY; The pottery, off Route 60 in Lightfoot, is open 8 to 6:30 Monday through Friday, to 7 on Saturday and Sunday.

"We haven't slept a wink. We left North Carolina at one o'clock this morning and drove straight through so we'd be here when the doors opened at eight." By midmorning, Diane Culler, Myrtle Sims and their married daughters were eating lunch in their camper in the gravel lot of the Williamsburg Pottery Factory. The four of them had spent a total of $70 -- no small feat at a place with bargain-basement prices like those at the pottery. "And we're just getting started. We'll shop here all day and head back to Pilot Mountains in the morning."

"Our prices are low because we buy close-outs and overruns, buy in large lots, and have been dealing with the same factories for over 36 years, when my uncle, James Maloney, started this business," yawned vice president Charles Crone. It was 8:30 on a Saturday morning and his turn to pull weekend duty at the family-owned and operated enterprise.

"My uncle bought these 12 acres in 1936 and moved here from the area near Monticello. He is a potter by profession and sold his pieces to Colonial Williamsburg. He sold his seconds -- pieces with pitted or uneven glazes -- from the house on this land, where he had his kiln. He figured other potters would also be glad to sell their seconds, so he started traveling around Ohio and West Virginia, buying up seconds, and selling them from the house.

"In the 1950s, we started importing what in the trade are known as sundries -- brass items, flowers, that kind of junk -- from Europe, before they were popular and when they were still cheap, and we kept adding buildings. Today we have 11.

"About eight years ago when my uncle was ready to sell out and retire, his son Fred took over as president, and now family members run the business. We travel overseas and do direct importing and sometimes even sell wholesale to other operations. I handle china and dinnerware, Fred's sisters direct Asian imports, the greenhouse and the restaurant; another son-in-law runs the Mexican market. Keeping it in the family causes some friction, but it's also good for competition."

Last year more than 1 1/2 million customers shopped at the pottery. A pre-Christmas staff of 800 sustains the operation, keeping track of the enormous inventory, working in the pottery itself where colonial reproductions are manufactured, and selling and wrapping packages. The shops resemble warehouses with cardboard boxes stacked everywhere, rough-hewn shelves, concrete floors and naked light bulbs. A weekend security force of about 50 guards checks packages for "paid" stamps and directs drivers into the snuggest fit possible in the parking lots.

"The husbands get so mad," Crone chuckled. "They don't want to be here in the first place, and then when they can't get out of the parking lot, they want to kill their wives."

The shoppers are mostly couples, often in pairs as if for a weekend outing. Dress runs to polyester suits for the older crowd; young er couples favor T-shirts and jeans. Babies go into the shopping carts along with purchases. The traffic flow is well organized, aisles are wide enough to accommodate shopping carts, prices are carefully marked on every item, and check-out lines move along efficiently. Despite the excitement of bargain-hunting, the vastness of the space and the plethora of choice make for relaxed shopping.

The Christmas Shop, open year-round, is crowded. Even local residents shop here for candles; it's hard to find a greater selection. There are six aisles of candles ranging from scented votives to elegant 12 inch tapers at 24 centres apiece, in addition to a relentless choice of candlesticks, snuffers and globes.

"Wouldn't this be cute sitting on your stereo?" coos a young housewife fingering a ceramic shepherd. "Yeah," replies her friend, "but this year I want to get a whole Nativity scene for the mantel." They "ooh" and "ah" at bins filled with Christmas mugs from Japan, Bozo mirrors, gingerbread houses, 89-cent paperweights, Christmas postcards, fake Hummel figurines from Taiwan, knitted Santas, plastic wreaths, felt stockings, ceramic doves, reindeer planters, religious busts, Mickey Mouse choir boys and "Happy Holidays" ashtrays for 49 cents each. "Sophistication is not part of the game plan here," Crone says.

Near the Christmas Shop, one is greeted by the outdoor Haitian market, where at $1.99 attractive hemp welcome mats constituted a good buy. Rattan hampers and baskets were being bought right off the truck, despite crude workmanship and only moderate prices. The pottery has a fleet of 20 trucks that travel the continent picking up and hauling the booty of the deals consolidated by its peripatetic staff.

Planters with painted exteriors decorated the asphalt piazza of the Mexican market. The first floor of the Mexican shop is filled with vivid jungle scenes painted on velvet, inexpensive pottery and sculpted onyx bookends, ashtrays and soap idshes at slightly less than standard prices. At $14.99, chessboards in polished onyx would make attractive garden tabletops. Upstairs is a paradise of exotic seashells ranging from 19 cents for a dried sea urchin to 49 cents for dessicated seahorses and scallop shells. Chunks of coral were $2.79 and $5.69.

Connected by a catwalk is the crystal shop, packed this particular Saturday afternoon with buyers of whimsical glass animals ranging in price from a dime for pigs to 39 cents for rats. The menagerie sold out in two hours, and the crowd left, passing up the pleasing collection of possible wedding gifts -- crystal decanters, bowls and butter dishes imported from Germany, Poland and Czechoslavakia.

The adjacent brass shop is another good place for gifts; copper kitchen molds averaged $2 to $3 less than in stores here; bedwarmers at $14.69 and brass music stands at $23 were unusual offerings.

An extensive selection at the lamp shop included an array of reasonably priced lanterns, chandeliers, shades and finials in a range of quality -- along with a child's dream -- a gumball-machine lamp.

A tunnel under railroad tracks leads you to the largest two structures on the site, the greenhouse and the china shop. Eight-inch clay pots were 79 cents at the pottery compared to $1.69 at Washington stores; a special bargain was six-inch hanging baskets filled with five-foot stems of purple passion for $2.50. White pine saplings were $1.99 compared with local prices of $4.95. Although those at the pottery appeared in good condition, they come without any guarantee.

Good buys downstairs in the china shop included Italian china decorated simply with rims of color, and an endless selection of coffee mugs. Inexplicably, a jewelry counter appears amid the china. Pucca shell necklaces and scrimshaw bracelets sold for less than Georgetown street vendors offer. If your tastes run to laminated scorpion pendants, you're in luck: they're just $4.95 at the pottery.

Upstairs in the gourmet shop you will find few bargains. Most items were comparable in price to those at local chain grooery stores. One exception was shallots in prime condition at $1.79 compared to a local price of $2.99 a pound. Be sure to inspect radically reduced merchandise: Oriental mushrooms were covered with a fine haze of mold; green tea at 19 cents a box appeared water-spotted.

There are those who believe that the pottery alone merits a trip to Williamsburg, and for those who do, several local charter services offer day trips for groups at around $10. A person. If you go, don't expect to find a particular brand, although do expect the unexpected in occasional bargains in high-quality items. The pottery is worth a browse if only for candles, brass and crystal gifts, wooden kitchen spoons for 19 cents apiece, inexpensive plants and some surprises like a hammock that you never knew you needed, but too cheap to resist. Merchandise is clearly marked if it's irregular, but it's wise to inspect before you buy since there's a noreturn policy. Payments can be made on the major credit cards or by personal check with identification.