In the sea of change engulfing downtown Bethesda, with its glittering new office towers and Metro-related development, an old shop remains merrily afloat. Bruce's Variety, a one-of-a-kind store in the Bradley Shopping Center since 1953, is holding its own against trend and time.
Young families with small children do not populate Bethesda or the store as much as they did three decades ago because housing in the area has become more expensive.
Today, infant wear sales at Bruce's are down. But many of the same people, grown old, remain as customers. "Now when you stand down on the floor, you'd think you're in Leisure World," said the owner, who is 65.
Bruce's Variety is where you can find just about anything you can't find elsewhere, customers say.
"You tell me where else would they have bluebird buttons?" said one, Barbara Cantor, of Silver Spring.
"There is no place in this city or Virginia where I can buy a double-boil pot like this," said another, Gertie Taylor, 77, a Norfolk resident who was visiting one day last week. "I been all over everywhere and when the saleswoman said yes, I could hardly believe it."
"We always bring her here to Bruce's Variety so she can get the little things she can't get anywhere else," said her daughter, Carolyn Lockie, who lives in Northwest Washington.
Likewise, Ruby Thomas, 76, who lives on upper Connecticut Avenue in the District, had brought her older sister, Arabelle Hummer, 82, who was visiting from Titusville, Pa.
"My sister said it wouldn't be like she'd come to Washington if she didn't have one trip to Bruce's," Thomas said. "Plus, there was something I needed I couldn't find in any other five-and-dime -- bone rings and gold rings" for arts and crafts projects she does at the Methodist Home of the District.
The Bruce behind Bruce's is Robert Bruce Dotson, who returned from war in 1945 determined to make a career out of writing newspaper advertising copy. He was advised to get retailing experience, and did, first in a Pennsylvania coal community and then in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Having endured the economic uncertainties of a one-industry town and the seasonal swings of a resort area, Dotson searched for stability and found it in the close-in Maryland suburbs of Washington.
"I felt down here they would always have big government," said Dotson, who set up shop in the then-new shopping center at the corner of Bradley Boulevard and Arlington Road. He still operates out of the same 30-foot-wide storefront, with crowded aisles that reach back nearly 100 feet.
Today, he captains a crew of 24, mostly middle-aged women who work the aisles and cash registers. They are all unabashedly old-fashioned in their approach to retailing.
Dotson is a confessed computer illiterate who depends on his almost-antique adding machine. The optical scanner bar-code lines manufacturers stamp on packages have no relevance here.
Store policy includes a 10 percent discount to schools, churches and other nonprofit organizations. And Bruce has been known to fill mail orders from elderly customers who can't come themselves.
"This is the last of the Mohicans," said Sol Ford, who sells stationery and school supplies to the store. The last frontier of the five-and-dimes, Dotson said, are small towns where retailers can afford to be their own landlords. He can tick off just a few that are left in this region.
The man who wanted to write newspaper ads does little advertising himself.
"It's always been word of mouth," Dotson said. He said he has been able to survive the mass marketing and discount pricing of the chains by offering a full line of items.
Take a box-opening knife. Bruce's carries three different types. Or clothespins. Bruce's has wooden ones with square or round tops, with or without the spring, and also plastic clothespins, with springs.
He has also carried fad items ("You remember the Hoola Hoop? Wow, that thing was some item."), but he says 99 percent of what he sells are staples.
"The thing I would dread most is taking inventory," said customer Milton Fields, of Rockville. "That would be a nightmare."
The other day, Dotson, his store manager Jack Stone, and Peggy Lampe, who has worked there 27 years, met in a small office upstairs to order school supplies for the fall. On the first day of school, by all accounts, Bruce's is swamped.
"When you can't find it anywhere else, you come to Bruce's," said one customer, "but I don't see what I'm looking for, a satin pillow case."
The missing item was the stock in trade of an 85-year-old salesman who had not been by lately, said Mildred Bakala, who is in charge of notions and cosmetics. "If we see him again, I'll tell him," she said.
Bruce's sold its last corset laces six months ago.
"It made me sad," said saleswoman Gladys Petry, whose jurisdiction runs from scissors to snaps. "But there doesn't seem to be much call for it."
The store also carries individual shoelaces -- in case you need just one -- and Styrofoam balls of all sizes, sought after each fall by schoolchildren constructing models of the solar system.
It also sells paper spindles. "We keep 'em sort of hidden, so the kids can't find them," said Lampe, whose side of the store holds 20,000 different items, including party supplies.
An exclusive local catering firm once purchased 150 Hawaiian leis for a party, she said. Another time, the same firm bought a large quantity of Styrofoam coolers (which Bruce's sells year-round, not just in the summer) and six dozen beach towels. All were put on a plane bound for California, Lampe said.
"We come in to buy a lot of squirt guns," said Sandra DeCoursey of Bethesda, who was browsing in Lampe's aisle. "We have two kids. Then, my husband has to have one, you know, to protect himself."
One woman and her son stepped up to the cash register the other day to pay for toys for her son's nursery school.
"Do you have any treats?" the boy wanted to know.
Bruce's didn't, so his mother asked if he wanted a cookie at the bakery two doors down.
"No, I want a squirt gun," the boy said.
"No, children who go to Quaker schools don't have guns," the mother said. "That would be a bad precedent."