Not so long ago, Tysons Corner was a small general store, a beer joint and a gas station. In the summer, carnival shows occasionally occupied one of the pastures around the crossroads, and you could win $50 for lasting three rounds wrestling with a gorilla.

Things have changed. Tysons Corner has boomed.

"Once this woman was trying to beat me into a parking place at Bloomingdale's," a Virginia woman said, describing a Christmas season encounter, "She rolled down her window and yelled 'that's my . . . parking place!" And her car was full of children I let her have the place and then she couldn't get into it . . ."

Tysons Corner is now, in many ways, the future of suburbia. It isn't just the shopping center where young mothers battle each other for parking places to buy a simple cotton frock for $68 or a diamond bauble for $2,000. It is the major economic center of Fairfax County - which itself is one of the richest, most populated suburban counties in the United States.

The Tysons Corner area is the work place for about 14,000 persons, making it one of the largest employment centers in both the county and metropolitan Washington. Its new office buildings contain every kind of white collar "industry" from systems planning firms to the regional headquarters of McDonald's hamburgers and the mid-Atlantic reservations center of United Airlines. Everywhere are signs of the specialized businesses of a new age: Nuclear Audit and Testing, Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association, and Eco-systems, Inc.

Because most of the people who work there also live in northern Virginia, the Tysons Corner area also represents an increasingly popular lifestyle - suburbia that isn't just a bedroom community.

While not exactly creating a "downtown" in a cow pasture, the high-rise office building and apartment houses that now ring the 90-acre Tysons Corner shopping center have changed the skyline.

The mix has resulted in a sort of hybrid - it isn't downtown, but it isn't country. It's trying to be the best of both worlds to generate a lot of money without cutting down too many trees.

The land that is Tysons Corner is among the most valuable pieces of property in the country. Two chunks - the land on which the shopping center is built and the "industrial park" of Westgate - are the second and third most valuable in the county. (After Gulf-Reston properties), assessed at $19.6 million and $16.6 million respectively in 1976.

About half of the 7.5 million square feet of office space in the county's 399 square miles is located in the Tysons area, creating the biggest concentration in the county.

"It's one of the hottest half-dozen real estate areas in the country," said Fairfax zoning attorney John T. Hazel, who represents the corporation that owns the shopping center in its efforts to build another, larger, shopping center on the land opposite it. "People who come here from all over the country always want to see Tysons."

Most weeks more than 200,000 persons pass through the shopping center - almost half of the population of the entire county. Of course they don't all come from Fairfax, they come from all over - as far away as Richmond, two hours to the south, not to mention the District, Maryland, and tourists from all over.

The reason for this bounty is a fortuitous blend of - as they say around Tysons - "location, location and location" and what is essentially an "it's too late now" attitude toward development. Since construction there started before public consciousness over restraining development, the feeling among planners seems to be that the entire location may as well continue in its present pattern - and there are over 500 acres left to build on.

The type of "industry" found in the offices there is another sign of the times - it's largely research and development (known in the trade as "R and D"), trade associations, local headquarters of major corporations, computer firms, financial investment agencies and brokers, and the usual lawyers, doctors, "consultants" and real estate firms. It's white collar industry, much of it spawned by the federal government.

"The more federal regulations there are, the more companies and industries need people in Washington to interpret them," said Alan R. Gesser of the Fairfax County Development Authority.

But there also are vast car dealerships, pizza parlors, nurseries, and a few - very few - remnants of an earlier era. Marcus Bles, who made a fortune by cleverly buying a great deal of land at Tysons Corner is the early days, still has his stump removal company at 8330 Leesburg Pike. And the Providence Baptist Church is hanging tenaciously onto its property adjoining the shopping center parking lot that it has owned since 1952.

"For years we'd get calls from real estate people two or three times a week to see if we wanted to sell," said Margaret Fontana, the church secretary and one of the 86 charter members. The church has a total of 3 1/2 acres it bought for $14,500 in 1952 and 1958. The land is now assessed at over $1 million.

"When we were first here the area around the church was all wooded," Fontana said. "You could hear foxes out there and there was a big ravine where you could find wild blackberries and raspberries . . . It's hard to believe the change . . . You know sometimes people wander into this building looking for one business or another and they don't ever realize it's a church? There's a big cross on it, but they don't even see it."

When a person in Norfolk calls United Air Lines to make a reservation, he or she may think he is talking to a person in Norfolk. Actually, the phone rings in a two-story building at Westgate Industrial Park at Tysons Corner, where a battery of computers and agents wearing headsets make reservations for callers from Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newport News, Allentown, Pa. and Richmond as well as Norfolk. Just before the connection is made, a taped voice tells the answering agent what city is calling, so that the caller will be given the correct information.

Last year 4,654,000 telephone calls came into that one building on Old Meadow Road, which is opposite Radiation Systems, Inc. If a caller asks how the weather is in the city he's going to, the agent punches a code into the computer and within seconds the information is flashed on the screen - from Denver. After 1 a.m., all the calls go to Chicago.

After a feasibility study, United moved its reservations set-up to Westgate from National Airport in 1970.

"Since we're computerized, it doesn't really matter where we are," said regional reservations manager Ted Hattan. "We have special requirements - cable runs and air conditioning - so moving downtown would have been very expensive. This building was constructed to our specifications, and the employees like being in light, airy surroundings."

United employs about 300 persons at the Westgate office, most of whom live in Virginia, Hatton said. Some even walk to work - although for United's employees as for everyone else interviewed who works in the area the availability of parking places is a major reason for moving to Tysons Corner.

It's a real blessing not to have to go through that parking hassle at National," said Hattan, who cut his hour commute from Springfield to half an hour.

"It should be added that not all of the characteristics of dense development are positive or beneficial. Detrimental characteristics may include congestion, environmental destruction, and loss of the qualities of human scale, personal identity, and community spirit . . . Aside from the shopping mall itself, the area is generally hostile to pedestrians."

- from a report on a county planning workshop for Tysons Corner that foresees a doubling of jobs in the area over the next 20 years.

Tysons Corner is not the biggest shopping center in the world, or even in the Washington area. It doesn't have the most stores, (Tysons 126; Springfield Mall, 164) nor even the most parking places (Tysons, 6,400; Springfield Mall has more). It wasn't even designed for the maximum use possible within its space - the main mall is only one level, while most malls are at least two, and the major department stores that "anchor" the L-shaped center have added as many floors (up to three) as they can.

But it has been phenomenally successful. Although the Lerner Corporation, which owns the building and leases space to stores, will not reveal that annual sales total, county economic experts estimate the center does between $120 million and $130 million in business a year.

While its location is undoubtedly a major reason for its success - it is within a half hour's drive of Montgomery County, the rest of Northern Virginia, and most areas of the District because of the beltway - another factor is the center management's policy of offering what they call "high quality merchandise."

On the one hand, this policy resulted in several lawsuits and Federal Trade Commission charges revolving around lease agreements that, complaints said, allowed the major department stores and the management to control the type of store that moved in. All the cases were settled with consent agreements.

Last year, Bloomingdale's department store moved in, and E.J. Korvette, the discount chain that at one point tried to rent the same building, did not.

Within the last year two "Georgetown type" stores have also opened branches at Tysons: Britches of Georgetown men's clothing store and Ann Taylor's boutique. Garfinckel's redecorated its small branch there with a snazzy art-deco, black-tiled motif, and there are numerous fashionable furnishing and clothing stores as well as the expected chain store regulars. There is even a chic butcher - "La Boucherie Bernard."

Of course there's still the Bar Mart, which sells bars, glasses, $70 Pierre Cardin backgammon sets, and pinball machines. They also have a supply of popular items like ash trays in the form of an obscene gesture, pillow cases imprinted with women's breasts and posters of people of various ages sitting on or in toilets.

Mall manager Stanley Jaffee, who is asked to give talks about Tyson's Corner at least 15 times a year, said that stores are not allowed to use handmade signs. "We like to go first class," he said.

The request made most frequently of the mall's security force, Jaffee said, is for help in finding a car. "People come in and park and then they can't remember where they were," he said.

Richard T. O'Connell is president of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association of the USA, which is housed along with the American Cocoa Research Institute, in the Honeywell Building at 9700 West-park Dr. There are six employees.

Part of their job is to "create a pleasant, favorable climate for chocolate so that people will want to eat it," O'Connell said, but most of their time is spent on "government relations."

The organization, which represents 15 of the 20 major manufacturers of chocolate, moved to West-park from 1912 K St. NW in 1972.

"Our membership said it was okay for us to move to the suburbs, but it had to be convenient to either airport and to interstate highways because we have plants in Philadelphia and people drive down here a lot . . . most of the employees live in Virginia, so everything just sort of fell into place to move out here."

What he describes is a familiar phenomenon to organizations who have chosen to move to an office near Tyson's Corner. As they see it, the area is convenient to everything. Twenty minustes from either National or Dulles, about that long to Capitol Hill and many government agencies, and - a recurring refrain - free or low cost parking.

"We have a theory that we represent a tertiary move," said Col. Rudolph G. Seeley, executive vice-president of Westgate Corp. Seeley's wife's family owned a quarter of the land that is now under Tysons Corner (then it was dairy farm) and he helped put together the surrounding farms to make up the 550 acres that make up Westpark and Watergate.

"Many firms have learned they should be represented in Washington. At first the organization wants to be downtowns so that the President can reach them quickly from the White House. Then they realize that isn't the way things happen, and by that time they've had to expand anyway to deal with more government regulations. The executive director of the office realizes he would rather not fight the traffic every day and so they move out here, where they can get more space, the ability to expand if necessary, little traffic, be close to home, and park for free."

O'Connell finds this theory somewhat irrelevant, but nonetheless most of the factors Seeley mentioned affected the Chocolate Manufacturer's decision to move to Virginia.

He and his staff spend a great deal of time meeting experts from different member chocolate factories at the airport and taking them to meetings at the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, or the Agriculture Department to work out details of complying with regulations. The only drawback O'Connell finds in being in the suburbs is that lack of "good restaurants" for the lunches and a certain isolation from others in the trade.

To reach the McDonald's Corp. offices at 8150 Leesburg Pike, you don't push a numbered button on the elevator panel - the floor is marked only by a Golden Arches symbol.

The hamburger empire moved its regional headquarters to this 14 story high-rise near the shopping center over two year ago because the rent was cheaper for the amount of space it needed compared to downtown. About 90 persons work on the Golden Arches floor, supervising 193 restaurants from Richmond to Delaware.

"The office life style here is really neat," said public relations manager Mary Jo Damatis, "Everyone has a window . . . it's great to be able to look out, the sky is beautiful and the view has a relaxing, majestic quality. An occasional view of Dick Harriman's Ford (car dealership) doesn't bother me."

There is an office bowling team, and the dress code is fairly relaxed, Damatis said. "You can wear blue jeans to work if you want."

Damatis is one of only two persons in the office who lives in Washington.She used to work downtown at 7th and K streets NW, where she saw two murders across the street from her office. She doesn't mind the commute to Virginia. "It helps me unwind," she said.

The future of Tysons Corner is essentially: more of the same. Westpark-Westgate is proceeding with construct on of two buildings this year. The Rotunda, a complex of five 248-apartment buildings in a "luxury resort oriented condominium community" is being built on a 42-acre site. The 10-story buildings are wxpected to be ready for occupancy late this year, and, according to their spokesman, the company sold a "record number" of the condominiums on the basis of display models late last year.

The Lerner Corp. has filed an application to rezone the 116 acres opposite Tysons Corner Shopping Center to allow it to build Tyson II - a larger shopping center that would include Sears, J. C. Penney's and other major stores as well as specially outlets like Lord and Taylor and Neiman Marcus.

The rezoning request has run smack into the major problem facing planners and builders in the area - what to do about traffic. Attorney Hazel said that Lerner may decide to build something else - the land is currently zoned for high-rise residential and office buildings - if a solution can't be worked out soon.

"For 10 years they've been thrashing around planning and talking great thoughts," Hazel said, "I've been going to meetings for five years talking about the various proposed solutions and then everyone goes away until the next meeting."

The two main proposals are to construct a "spaghetti-like" intersection at the junction of Rte. 123 and International Drive, and to build lanes parallel to the Dulles Access Road to draw through traffic away from the area.

The crucial questions, according to both planners and builders, are who will pay for what and what affect the spaghetti (which is not the same as a cloverleaf) will have on Rte. 123, which eventually will have to be widened to accommodate the expected increase in traffic.

"It's questions like: are you going to depress 123 or build over it," Hazel said, "And what to do you mean in terms of square feet of land on either side."

"Two things cause traffic," said county planner Carolyn Manchester, "commuters passing through to the Pentagon or Washington, and people using the area, "If you can get the commuters onto another road, then the local problem is less."

A decision is expected sometime before the end of May, when Lerner's application for Tysons II is scheduled to be heard.