Rutherford B. Hayes was president when Community Paint & Hardware Inc. opened its doors at 7250 Wisconsin Ave. in Bethesda in 1880.

While the area around it has grown into a congested commercial center, the store is still the place where customers go for old-fashioned service and a seemingly unlimited supply of copper tubing, paint supplies, tools, nails, nuts and bolts.

But now Community Paint & Hardware is trying to sell the last of its merchandise before closing Feb. 28 to make way for a new high-rise building. For many regulars, the closing represents the passing of an era.

"It's sad," said Charles Hutson, 30, a stockbroker who lives in Chevy Chase, D.C., and who was in the store yesterday buying grass seed, work gloves and a chamois cloth. "I like the atmosphere. It's dark, dingy and dirty . . . and you can come in here and grab things; there's not the . . . plastic garbage that I don't like."

Two other customers who have come to depend on Community Paint & Hardware for its well-stocked shelves and personal service are Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.) and newscaster David Brinkley, and they have invited about 700 customers to a party next weekend for the family that operates the store.

"People are supposed to come [to the party] as they would come to the store on a Saturday," Packwood said yesterday.

"They have things no other store has -- and they will spend an hour with you even if you spend only a nickel," Packwood said.

He recalled his first visits to the store in 1969. "About the third time I went there, and I had been buying some things and putting them on a bank charge card, they offered me a store charge card," Packwood said. At first he resisted the offer, thinking it would require a time-consuming application.

"But he the store operator takes my name and address -- I told him my phone number was unlisted -- and he writes this all down on a paper sack and throws the sack into a pile . . . and I had a charge account," Packwood said.

Alfred Broadhurst, 64, president of the business and one of seven brothers who has helped operate the store, said his family acquired the store in 1933 from a previous owner. His brother Harold Broadhurst, 70, retired from the store eight years ago but continues to work there on a part-time basis.

On a normal day, the 10,000-square foot store employs 18 workers and caters to 1,000 customers. But in the three months since the store announced its plans to close, "we have been selling to 2,000 customers a day," Alfred Broadhurst said.

The first items to go were the chisels, putty knives, razor blades, nails and housewares, he said. "Now we're basically selling off what's on the shelves -- fertilizer, picks, sledgehammers and axes."

The Broadhursts, who own the store site, said they are part of the partnership that will build the high-rise. Alfred Broadhurst said it has not been decided if the high-rise will be for offices, shops or something else. But he does know that the fancy new building won't have an old-fashioned hardware store, because "it would be too expensive to open a hardware store there."