It looked like a bill from Garfinckel's, but my account with the fashionable store was long paid off. So what was it all about? It was a notice that my bill had been paid down to zero for so long that, by gosh, if I didn't use it soon I couldn't use it ever.

The next word from Garfinckel's was another notice that began: "You may recently have received a notice . . . stating that your account had not been used in several months. If so, this was an error . . . Garfinckel's extends its most sincere apologies for this regrettable mistake."

In my case, it was no mistake--the account hadn't been used for about two years. But, it turns out, I was far from alone in receiving the warning notices. A midlevel Garfinckel's aide told me such notices caused consternation among women who have long considered an account as a symbol of being in the local in-group.

It was all a goof.

To an extent that even the store's top official can't explain, Garfinckel's sent similar credit-cutoff notices to every one of its credit-card holders, apparently the result of somebody in its computer center pushing the wrong button when the store was trying to deal with such recent noncustomers as myself. That led to the total wipe-out of longtime customers and the follow-up letter quoted above.

After seeking an explanation yesterday from an unavailable lower-level Garfinckel's public relations person, I found myself on the phone with Robert Vandemark, the store chain's chairman and chief executive, who turned out to be probably the most candid of any corporate head I've dealt with in my career. "I have no explanation," he said. "It was a goof."

And, d'ya know, I'll go soon to Garfinckel's and buy something, just to let 'em know I want to keep the account going.