Jessie Talley and Ann Hettie strolled by to peer into the gaping black cavern that was the Prevention of Blindness Society Thrift Shop at 1229 King St. in Alexandria before a fire gutted it early yesterday morning.

Like many others in the upper King Street neighborhood, Talley and Hettie liked to come to the shop to pick over the clothes, books and baubles in search of a bargain.

"There were good things in there. Real cheap. Lot of good people there, too," Hettie said.

Talley said she had paid $2 for a black dress at the store the previous day. "They had everything here. Do you remember that great big organ in there?" she asked Hettie.

The $800 organ, like everything else in the three-story brick building, was destroyed by the fire. Alexandria fire officials estimated damage to the building and contents at $250,000.

A policeman on patrol and two motorists discovered the blaze. Firefighters came to the building at 2:37 a.m. to find flames leaping out its windows.

"Nothing at this point indicates it's suspicious," said Public Safety Department spokeswoman Lucy Crockett. But fire officials are still investigating to determine the cause, she added.

Arnold Simonse, the executive director of the Prevention of Blindness Society of Metropolitan Washington, said the King Street store provided about $125,000 a year for the society's programs. The society, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in January, tests children and adults for eye problems and helps purchase eyeglasses for those who cannot afford them. The items sold in the store were donated.

The store had been at King Street and N. Payne Street for less than a year. For the previous 10 years, it was located in the 700 block of King Street. When and where the thrift store will be relocated has not been determined, Simonse said.

"We're kind of stymied now. Our big job is to make up for this so we don't have to cut back on our programs," he said.

Simonse also said he did not know how the fire started, but noted that the shop, like many a good thrift store or junk shop, was crowded with furniture, clothing and books.

Catherine Glasgow, with the help of six volunteers, has managed the thrift shop during its 11 years in Alexandria.

"We had many customers who were frequent visitors and wonderful donators. We had a very clubby group -- it was a happy place," she said. "Now that it's gone, it's very hard to accept."