The Fort Foote Market, a 34-year-old country store in Fort Washington that served as a kind of social center for its neighborhood, was gutted by fire early Jan. 22, but the operator says he can rebuild.

The market, on the corner of Fort Foote and Oxon Hill roads--up the street from Fort Foote, an Army fortress on the Potomac that dates back to the early 1800s--was more than a convenience store, neighbors said.

Almost everybody in the racially mixed suburban neighborhood knows everyone else who gathered at the market, customers said.

"I go there every day just to say 'Hi' " said Carrie Harris, who lives nearby.

Market operator Frank Lucente said that if insurance covers the loss, he can reopen in about a month. He said preliminary estimates suggest it will cost about $120,000 to gut, renovate and restock the store.

Lucente, 47, spent most of the past week week sifting through the rubble, taking inventory of the melted packages of cheese, scorched boxes of cereal and soap powder and blistered soda bottles. The huge rack of snacks by the front door offered a wide variety of blackened chips--all barbecued.

"We were loaded up with stock for the weekend game," Lucente said, shaking his head sadly. The market burned the day the Redskins beat the Cowboys.

Lucente believes that the fire began in a trash can in front of the store. He said it took no time for the fire to blow out the plexiglass windows and eat through the cedar-shake roof. Fire investigators are still trying to determine whether the fire began accidentally or was set.

Lucente, a retired government administrator, grew up in a West Virginia family that owned a little store. He purchased Fort Foote Market in 1971, and has had a few robberies and burglaries, but this was his first fire, he said. He rents the cinder-block building from Bayne Brooke, who built it in 1948.

Lucente, who lives about a mile from the store, and his mother-in-law, Vinie de Polo, who worked there with him, said that scores of their Fort Washington neighbors have called or stopped by to offer condolences and assistance in reviving the neighborhood landmark. The outpouring of sympathy "takes a little of the sting away," De Polo said. "It's a family affair . . . . It's our whole life."

Neighbors say that the Fort Foote Market was indeed a family affair, a place where adults stopped for coffee and newspapers in the morning, where people dropped in to watch the afternoon soap operas and to play the lottery, where children met after school for penny candy and a few rounds on the video games. The kids call Lucente "the Candyman," neighbors said.

"I like to take my little boy, Brandon, there to buy candy," said Regena McNeil. "He gets a kick out of paying for it himself, and the ladies who work there are so patient."

She said she liked the market because it reminded her of the country stores in the part of Georgia where she grew up. McNeil said she stopped by the store at 4:30 every afternoon to play the Maryland lottery, and now will have to "go out of my way to play."

Other neighbors said they frequented the market because Lucente cashed checks, readily extended credit when customers were a few cents short, and went out of his way to fill special orders for items.

"It's more convenient than having a bank nearby," said Vernon Norman, 33, who lives in the farmhouse across the street from the market. He said that after the fire, he and other neighbors helped shovel debris out of the store's aisles.

Norman said that the day before the fire, the shopkeeper had rushed over to Norman's back yard to help him with a distressed goat that was having a difficult labor. "He had to pull the little one out," said Norman, who promptly named the kid "Frankie," after Lucente. After a friend spotted flames that night, it was Norman who called Lucente to tell him the store was on fire. Trudy Beddow, who runs a private school not far from the market, suspects that the fire was set by some teen-agers who were reportedly in the area near midnight. "I looked at the burned market and got a sick feeling in my stomach," Beddow said. "It was not a natural occurence." CAPTION: Picture 1, Owner Frank Luncente says the neighbors helped taked the sting out of the fire that recently damaged his Fort Foote Market in Fort Washington.; Picture 2, Contractors estimate it will cost about $120,000 to gut, renovate and restock the popular country store. Photos by VANESSA BARNES HILLIAN -- The Washington Post