With letters diminutive in size and irregular in shape, the fluorescent red message printed on Community Paint & Hardware's storefront window reads simply: "Goodbye Bethesda."

For the better part of Saturday night Bethesdans and non-Bethesdans crowded into the landmark hardware store to say their goodbyes -- goodbye to the 55-year-old store that will close once and for all on Feb. 28; goodbye to the store's owners, the Broadhurst brothers, Alfred, Ralph and Harold; goodbye to their 18 employes; and goodbye to a place where small-town history lingered a while in the metropolitan present.

This was a party for the hardware store's customers, and its hosts were two of the most ardent: Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.) and ABC's David Brinkley, who is, according to Packwood, an "extraordinary cabinetmaker."

But what is so special about one hardware store that makes a senator and a network newscaster throw it a farewell party? "It's one of the few places I know where you can still buy Thomas' nails -- those nails that you pound into bricks, that are made out of lead," said Packwood.

Brinkley, taking a slightly less utilitarian approach, put it this way: "It's a part of America that we have all, at least I have, grown up in and that is disappearing. It is a store run by a family, not a part of a chain; they are always there, and they know you the second time you come in."

Invitations, sent to the 750 customers who hold charge accounts with the store, advised that the "Dress" was "hardware store casual," that the "Place" was, well, "If you don't know after all these years, you never will" and promised "hearty refreshments." That promise was amply fulfilled with wicker baskets full of cider doughnuts and red apples, paper cones brimming with popcorn, crudite's, hot dogs, roasted peanuts, whole-grain breads and an array of cheeses.

Walter and Joan Mondale heeded the invitation's dress code: Walter, in a Nordic sweater and blue jeans; Joan, in Oshkosh B'Gosh overalls and a sweat shirt; and both of them in well-worn running shoes. "It's like losing a friend," said Walter Mondale. "We've been coming here for over 20 years." He, like many others, praised the Broadhursts and their staff for the expert and honest advice that they have generously given over the years: "They tell you how to fix something without fixing you," he said.

One longtime customer lamented that "everything in Bethesda is going, except the traffic jams." And she, like hundreds of others, couldn't believe that Community would ever close. But increased property taxes, increased competition from drugstores that sell nails (20 to a plastic pack when you only want three) and screwdrivers and the decline of the well-rounded sales clerk who knows what a 1/2-by-5-inch nipple and a 20-amp armored connection are, have forced them to close.

"We've been struggling to get along in the black," said Alfred Broadhurst, 64. They knew, for the past two or three years, that it was a matter of time before they would have to post a "going out of business" sign.

The site at 7250 Wisconsin Ave., where five of the seven Broadhurst brothers ran the hardware store, where their sons and daughters grew up playing in the bins of sunflower seeds and stocking the shelves after school and where Benedict (Bud) Shoemaker proposed to Elaine Broadhurst (in the basement), will probably become a slick and pricey 14-story Bethesda address.

Joe Dratch, a business neighbor of Community, observed, "It's a Norman Rockwell thing. If he were here, he would paint this." Thirty-five years ago Dratch and his wife Claire put their clothing store (Claire Dratch) together with nails from Community. "And I brought my three young sons here to show them what an American country hardware store really was," Joe Dratch said.

One woman, lost in the swollen crowd of cheese-nibbling customers, said, "This is worse than Christmas shopping!" Peter Vogt, a filmmaker and a customer at Community for 19 years, said, "There is no interpersonal connection to be made at Hechinger or Sears." He praised the hardware store as "an institution of practical wisdom" and said that "coming in here is like getting a father or a grandfather for a little while."

Over the course of the evening it became clear that to have a charge account with Community Paint & Hardware is to have a link with life in a small town -- the way it used to be. It does not mean filling out an extensive application for credit; it does not mean presenting a plastic credit card with every purchase; it means, at the very least, trust.

Marvin and Marilyn Adland, Somerset residents who have shopped there for 35 years, stood in the front room, which dates back to 1880, and described the process of charging a purchase: "There were never any questions; they knew the customer's name, wrote it down and listed the items purchased and the quantity." Not the address, the price, the tax or the total. That came later, with the bill. "They trusted you and you trusted them," said Marvin Adland.

Packwood told the plaid-flannel-and-khaki-attired guests that his charge account was established, or rather given, to him in 1969 when a sales clerk wrote down his name and address on a paper sack and threw it in a box. Packwood, like Brinkley, all the Broadhursts and many others, was identifiable by a name tag pinned to his work shirt: a small brown paper bag (the kind you throw a small handful of bolts into).

Brinkley turned to his friend and said, "Bob, you got a charge account by not asking for it, and I didn't even know I had one until the bill showed up at the house. I paid it and that was 30-odd years ago."

Louis Laborde, one of the store's coowners and a Broadhurst son-in-law, told Packwood and Brinkley he knew it would "take many months for them to find a good hardware store" and presented each host with a shimmering quart-sized mason jar filled with nuts, bolts, screws, washers and nails. A beaming Packwood said, "It's exactly what we need," and he held the jar up for his wife to see. "We've got 10 more at home," responded Georgie Packwood.

Packwood's party crew (his Hill staffers) brought in a popcorn machine, hot plates to warm the cider and a cassette deck to turn out old-timey tunes like "Take the A Train" and "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home?" It was more than an old-fashioned store could take. A fuse blew and rendered the microphone and its speakers useless for a spell. The speeches were delayed.

The hardware store's stock has shrunk in recent months to 30 percent of its original volume (with the highly visible exception of white Cottonelle toilet paper, 88 cents for a package of two), but there were still a few fuses around, and before long the modern age of amplified sound was reestablished and gentle tributes filled the air.

"This place," said Brinkley, "meets all the tests of a great hardware store. The first test being that it sells hardware, as opposed to flimsy plastic novelties which will last, if you are lucky, until you get home. The second great charm of this place is that it has nothing to do with style; nothing to do with fashion; there is nothing in this store that was 'in' last year and is 'out' this year.

"They don't carry that sort of thing. They have, for example, a thousand sizes of screws. Screws were invented by Archimedes in about 200 B.C. They still have them, and they are as good now as they were then . . .

"The other great thing about this store . . . is the family that owns it and runs it. They are always here, unlike chain hardware stores, which have 18-year-olds in red blazers, who barely know what a hammer is and do not know what a screwdriver is."

Brinkley recalled wanting, years back, to hang the "first picture of my first son" with a picture hook. "Where do you get a picture hook? Where the hell else do you go? Community Paint & Hardware!

"I have bought everything in this store at least once. I wish to God they would keep it long enough for me to buy it all again."

Perhaps Brinkley should have taken the opportunity Saturday night to buy one more thing. Irene Morrow did. She has been a patron of Community Paint & Hardware since the '30s and, she said, "there isn't a nail or a screw in the house that hasn't come from here." Morrow made the best of the occasion by purchasing, for $1.09 plus tax, a toilet tank float rod.

As Ralph Broadhurst said earlier in the evening, "The customer always comes first."