For as long as anyone can remember, the Berkeley County courthouse here in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia has had a public women's restroom and, by official appointment, restroom matrons.

More than a convenience for courthouse-goers, the basement restroom is a social gathering place, with comfortable rocking chairs, spray-painted flowers and wall hangings. And the matrons who clean and restock it are an institution.

But in March, the three county commissioners -- all males -- voted to close the restroom forever, saying they needed the space to store records.

Thus, the current guardians of this exalted underground post, 85-year-old Velma Stout and her 66-year-old daughter, Lena Butts, could well be the last.

And, the women say, downtown business will suffer because most restaurants and stores discourage people from using their facilities. The women's restroom is open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. five days a week, with mother and daughter splitting the shifts.

"A lot of the women told me if the place closes down, they're doing no more business in Martinsburg," said Butts. "They're going to the plazas, because there's no other public restroom here."

"I personally think it's a convenience for the whole downtown," said Sylvia Tavenner, owner of Tavenner's gift shop, around the corner from the courthouse. "We always allow people to use our facilities here, but . . . . "

There is more to it than just using the facilities, which are accessible through a classical Greek entranceway flanked by Corinthian columns.

"Religion, politics, abortion, divorce, everything, I'll tell you; we really talk about it all," said Butts, who works afternoons, but also drives her mother to and from work in the mornings.

"So many old people stop in here, once to go to the bathroom, once to rest before they leave downtown ," said Butts. "To tell you the truth, I think a lot of these old people come in here just to have someone to talk to. They're lonesome . . . . It's lovely in the winter; it's warm. And it's cool in the summer."

"In fall, after apple-picking time, they come in from the country and stay here until their husbands pick them up," said Stout.

In January, the men's room, which never had full-time attendants, was closed because of vandalism. But a movement is afoot to retain the ladies' room.

Last month, 193 women signed a large piece of cardboard, testifying to their attendance in the basement restroom. Although the card contains no other message, the commissioners are taking it as a possible political statement.

"We may backtrack a little," said Victor L. Shockey, the county commission president, who also owns an automobile dealership in town.

"I didn't realize that many people were using the facility," he said.

Anna Mitchem, a self-styled "senior citizen" of undisclosed age, stopped by the other day to rest and remark, "I've been coming in here 50 years or more. I live 14 blocks from here. When I walk uptown, I like to come in here."

"I'd say it's been here 70 years," said matron Stout. "I'll bet you every bit of it." Viola Horner, who stopped by to chat, said, "My lands, this has been open since before I was a kid, and I'm 67."

The Martinsburg restroom -- actually a sitting room, plus two inner rooms with five stalls and three sinks -- contains the stuff of legends.

For one, there was the matron who sold bonnets. Her name has been lost to history.

Then there was Fannie L. Markle, who retired in May 1966, on her 90th birthday, having "so faithfully cared for the women's room for so many years," the county commissioners officially noted.

Soon thereafter, Butts said, the retired matron wanted the commissioners to fire her successor, Velma Stout, so she could get her job back.

"She couldn't stand up," recalled Butts. "But she was a real fine lady, yes she was. I'll tell you, you sure have some stories down here."

The restroom walls are decorated with religious art and calendars, a fusion of church and state to which no officials have objected, although at least one restroom user objected to Stout's playing religious radio music.

While most of the restroom patrons are elderly, Butts said mothers occasionally bring their children along. "Most little kids who come down here, they think I live here," Butts said. "They say, 'Momma, does she live here?' 'No,' they say, 'she goes home at night.' "

The women get $3,680 a year each in salary, and Stout receives fringe benefits worth an additional 25 percent. Altogether, the restroom costs the county about $10,000 a year, including supplies.

If forced into retirement, Stout intends to "stay home, I guess; just stay home," she said. But daughter Butts wants to travel, in "Ohio, Maryland, anyplace I can go. I don't plan to sit home, that's for sure."