The front door at M & S Market is always swinging. Little kids skip into the store and pull from their pockets wrinkled grocery lists sent from home. Occasionally, an elderly person who cannot read or write walks in to ask a cashier for help in filling out personal checks -- not only for groceries, but for some other bills, too.
Young David Taylor runs in and out delivering boxes of groceries to people who have phoned in their orders to the store at 213 Upshur St. NW.
"It's not a grocery store; it's a community service," said Loretta J. Ross, an M & S customer. "I have gone down to the grocery store -- as most people have -- and left my money at home. Well, they just packed up my groceries, delivered them to the house and waited on me to find the money."
"This store is a lifesaver in this community," said longtime customer Geneva Johnson, shopping with her husband at the store recently.
"Everybody is in such a hurry today, too big a hurry for chitchat," she said. "But here the people are friendly and gracious and they talk to you."
"If this store wasn't here I would have to make arrangements to go to the Safeway because I don't have a car," offered customer Alice Yarborough, as she bent to get a can of green beans.
The market, its windows plastered with signs advertising specials, stands between a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witness and a smaller storefront church, on a block dominated by small shops and row houses. The Soldiers and Airmen's Home is nearby and its residents frequent M & S.
It's an immaculate store with worn linoleum floors, streaked from fresh moppings, and employes who habitually pause to restack items that hang out of place on the shelves.
The well-stocked meat department at the rear of the store offers a variety of fresh fish and meats like "pork neck bones," "slab bacon" and "beef brisket," cut to specification by the one of the owners.
"Let me see this piece of beef under that right there," Geneva Johnson told owner Phillip Dickerson, pointing to a nearly hidden slab of meat.
"How are the grandchildren?" Dickerson asked, handing the cellophane-wrapped meat to her so she could get a good look. Then to her husband, he asked, "How are you today, Brother Johnson?"
Phillip and Barbara Dickerson took over M & S 10 years ago. He worked for the store's previous owners, and when they decided to sell, he decided to buy. Both of the Dickersons have fond memories of working in small stores when they were children.
"It's the only thing I've ever done," said Phillip Dickerson, who is also a butcher.
His wife recalled working in a grocery store from age 5 until she was 12. "They would let me wait on the children after Sunday school," she said. "I'd sell them cookies and candies so I mostly handled nickels and pennies, and I put them in a little cigar box."
Today, they enjoy being a "mom and pop." Phillip Dickerson's brother, Robert, known as "Bobby D" to some in the neighborhood, works with them, and their two children sometimes work in the store, too.
While Phillip Dickerson admitted part of the reason for offering extra services is to beat out competition, he added, "When you've been here as long as I have you get to know people well, and some of the elderly become like a grandmother or a grandfather. Then it's no longer just business and they are no longer just customers; we are friends."
"We know most of our customers by name and they know us," said Barbara Dickerson. "We are concerned about each other. I try to visit the regular customers when they are in the hospital.
"On deaths, we try to send flowers," said Barbara Dickerson, who has even spent time getting social services for some of her elderly customers. "We have a lot of old people in this area who can't read or write, and we read for them.
"I have one little lady, I take care of all of her business," she said. "I would say just about anything we can do for our customer, within reason, we'll do."
The store's official motto is, "You shop and we deliver." But Taylor, 19, who wants "to own a couple of stores one day," said Phillip Dickerson advises him to "be nice, treat the customer with respect and get little odd things they need off the shelves for them."
Originally, the delivery service was started to assist the elderly during icy weather. "But once they got used to it they didn't want us to stop it," recalled Barbara Dickerson. "So the last four or five years we have taken phone orders. We have a lot of elderly customers and two blind people who use that service regularly."
There's no charge for the delivery with an order of at least $15, she said.
On the first of the month the door at M & S swings a little more often than most other times, as elderly residents of the neighborhood line up to cash their Social Security checks.
For cashier Joyce Paige, the first is always a particularly pleasant day.
"This is such a nice, homey place," she said, standing behind the checkout counter, eating from a container of yogurt.
"Hope your hand feels better!" she yelled to one departing customer.
"You feel as if you know all the customers once you start working with them," Paige said. "We're like family here. A lot of the elderly, we exchange recipes and talk about cooking."
Hazel T. Rorie, a retired nurse's assistant and faithful M & S customer, said the attention from the store's staff is appreciated by all of the community's residents.
"Some days I look forward to just walking around here," said Rorie. "You can come here and crack a joke, or hear one. It can really make your day."