For more than half a century, the Bethesda Community Store has been a convenient, friendly place for area residents to make a quick stop for groceries or refreshments. It has retained its atmosphere of an old-fashioned country store in an era of streamlined convenience stores and fast-food chains.
"You just walk in the door and it feels like you're in a different part of town," said 20-year-old Christopher Hall. "It really feels like you're out in the country." Hall has been a regular customer since age 6.
The small, white-frame building at Old Georgetown and Greentree roads has been owned and operated for the last 37 years by Ernest Caudill and his wife, Margaret.
Caudill, a native of Boone, N.C., moved to the Washington area in 1942 and was a regular customer at the store while working as a meat delivery man. Even then, he said, he wanted his own store, "but I never even gave this place a thought."
"One day in 1945 I rode out, looked at it and just decided to buy it," Caudill said. "I called the man who owned it and asked him if he wanted to sell it. He said, 'Sure.' So I bought it. It was as easy as that."
On May 28, 1945, Caudill opened for business. "I remember we did $18 business that first day," he said. "It was mostly groceries then. The first day we didn't have coffee and sandwiches, just groceries and a few vegetables.
"A couple of days after we opened up there was a driver for Woodward and Lothrop who came by and asked me if I'd make him a sandwich. I said, 'Well, I don't know why not.' So I opened a loaf of bread, sliced him a slice of bologna and made him a bologna sandwich. That was the start of our sandwich business."
"From that it grew into everyday business with him and other people. Within a few months we brought in coffee, then pies; we added doughnuts and it grew into more of a delicatessen than a grocery store," Caudill said.
As one of the area's few remaining family-owned grocery and sandwich shops, the one-room store still looks much like it must have when it was built in the 1920s. The steady stream of traffic on Old Georgetown Road and the regular wail of ambulances heading for nearby Suburban Hospital do little to disturb the homey atmosphere.
The front porch stands crowded with the soft drinks it takes to quench the thirst of the hundreds of customers who rush in every day. Stock boy Billy Gannon is kept in almost constant action all day replenishing drink coolers. Inside, shelves are neatly stacked to the ceiling with popular items and some that have never found their way off the shelves.
The store, only 30 by 18 feet, boasts no modern sales equipment. A drawer serves as the cash box, while sales tax is relegated to a jelly jar in front of a long line of matchbook packs, meticulously placed on end along a bottom shelf.
The pie and pastry cases, on both ends of the long front counter, are stocked fresh each morning with items that seldom last past noon. Dozens of pies are delivered early each day, and the Caudills slice and wrap each piece.
Toward the back of the store is the deli, where Margaret Caudill and one or two helpers are busy preparing sandwiches or brewing coffee. (In the morning, it can take as many as 12 pots.) On the front of the meat and dairy case, a small white sign announces that a hard-boiled egg may be had for a mere 20 cents.
The front counter, with Formica worn white by years of purchases and cleaning, is manned by Ernest Caudill (known to most customers simply as "Ernie") and Lynn Guerriero, who has been working full time there for two years.
Standing at the counter, Caudill greets many customers by their first names.
Sam Fleming, who has stopped by "every day, the good Lord willing," since the early 1950s, has his coffee in hand almost before he can walk the short distance from the front door to the coffeepots.
Fleming said that when he started coming to the store the coffee sold for a nickel a cup. The price has risen to 30 cents, but, Caudill is quick to point out, "never by more than five cents at one time."
Caudill has developed strong feelings for the neighborhood around his store and its residents, although he doesn't live there.
"I used to know them all," he said. "I probably don't know half of them now. But there are still an awful lot of wonderful people in the neighborhood, very good people. It's still the best neighborhood in the country."
A look at the store's parking lot during peak hours, when it is usually filled to capacity, provides an insight into the diversity of the store's customers. Utility company trucks sit next to Lincolns, Cadillacs and Hondas, while their occupants head into the store to buy lunch, pick up a needed grocery item or just chat with their friends, Ernie and Margaret.
Rose Curly, who has been preparing sandwiches behind the deli counter for five years, wrote a college sociology paper on the people who are drawn to the store.
"We get an amazingly broad cross section of people in here," Curly said. "We get the working men, we get the middle- and upper-middle class students who come driving up in cars their daddies bought them, and we also get the neighborhood people who come in to ask for favors.
"Here it seems as if we've hit upon every type of person that can be served. Having worked other places, I know you don't get that anywhere else."
Although the Bethesda Community Store in recent years has turned more toward its sandwich and lunch business, Caudill has tried to retain some of the original flavor. "We still call it a grocery store, and we still sell some groceries: bread and milk, a few canned goods, a few dry goods and some fresh produce," he said. His two best selling groceries are canned soups and juices.
In front of an antique candy case at the front counter is a revolving rack of "Putnam Fadeless Dyes," a remnant of the dyeing craze of the 1960s and early 1970s. "Actually, we just sold eight or 10 packs . . . ," he said. "Some project up at the school, I think it was."
On another corner shelf are packs of straight pins still marked at 15 cents each. "They're one of the real bargains," said Betty Brickhouse, the Caudills' niece. She has worked at the store since she was a high school student in the 1950s. "You can see they've been here a long time, since before inflation hit," she said with a laugh.
The children in the neighborhood provide some of Caudill's most consistent business. As Gannon, the stock boy, pointed out, not many kids will bypass so convenient an opportunity for junk food.
Caudill's philosophy and practice of treating all customers as equals is a quality of service most frequently mentioned by regular patrons. "I don't care if you're buying a penny flap of matches or $15 worth of groceries, we try to treat everybody the same," Caudill said.
In the late afternoon, after the store has cleared and the only customer is an occasional child for candy or a motorist desiring cigarettes, Caudill begins tallying the day's receipts on a brown paper bag. Standing at the front counter, he carefully arranges the sales into long columns, figuring and counting by himself.
Gannon, having cleared the last of the day's sodas from the front porch, comes and stands quietly on the other side of the counter.
"Okay, 6 o'clock, that's it for today," Caudill announces. Gannon knows that is the signal to unscrew the bare bulb hanging above the front counter. The little store goes dark.
The store's future is uncertain. The Caudills, who have run it with few vacations and little rest, are in their sixties, and friends and relatives have urged them to give up the store or at least lighten their workload.
But Ernest and Margaret Caudill are determined workers who return every Monday through Friday to work with hardly a break or rest period from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. (The store is closed weekends.)
Brickhouse said Ernie Caudill has told her every year for the last seven years "that this year is his last." But the Bethesda Community Store is still going strong.
"It's gotten so it's not a matter of money," Caudill explained. "But you get a lot of friends and after so many years it gets kind of hard to just give it up. I know I should, but I just haven't decided yet." CAPTION: Picture 1, On Ernest Caudill's first day as owner in May 1945, the store did $18 dollars in business_mostly groceries.; Pictures 2 and 3, Bethesda Community Store attracts a wide variety of customers, many of whom come for the companionship as well as the merchandise. Lynn Guerriero, who has worked at the store for two years, minds the candy counter.; Picture 4, Rose Curly once wrote a school paper about the store's customers. Photos by JIM BOURG for The Washington Post