Over the years, the cramped, crowded and congenial Cleveland Park Safeway often ran out of ketchup or cauliflower or some other comestible. Now -- to the distress of loyal patrons -- the Safeway has run out of time.

On Oct. 17, the compact, circular checkout conveyers will take their final spin. The supermarket called the "Soviet Safeway" because of its long lines and short supplies will close, leaving nothing but a large order of lost camaraderie at 3427 Connecticut Ave. NW.

"It's just devastating," said Judy Hubbard, long active in the Cleveland Park neighborhood. "That Safeway is so critical to people around here. It's a community center." She rattled off names of clerks: two Alices, Corrado and Mac. "They're all just part of the neighborhood."

So much a part, in fact, that a few years ago Safeway patrons set up a secret bank fund and sent assistant manager Wally Valentini to visit relatives in Italy.

"He's given us so much, and helped so many people, just by being such a joy," Hubbard said.

He and the 28 other store employes will be reassigned to area Safeways, the closest of which is the Safeway Food Emporium at 4310 Connecticut Ave. NW, a food store aglow with newness and neon.

At the Soviet Safeway, 20 years of heavy traffic has left pits in the linoleum, cracks in the paint and grime in the crevices. But neighbors cherish the store and its location, and many -- particularly the elderly -- worry about their future.

"I am absolutely sick about it," said one white-haired woman, who like dozens more on Connecticut Avenue pulled a metal two-wheel cart holding Safeway bags.

The woman, who has no car and who wore dark glasses to protect her weakening eyes, expects to shop at the Giant about seven blocks north at Van Ness Center. "I will have to go up that hill," she said. "How can I possibly, in snow, sleet and ice?"

Catherine Bittinger, who said she had called Safeway officials in Landover to protest the closing, said, "People come to this store in walkers and wheelchairs."

"I think definitely it's going to be a hardship," said Elizabeth Niland, walking arm-in-arm with a neighbor whom she accompanies to the Safeway about three times a week. "You can't carry groceries on a bus."

Many customers said they had heard rumors that a rent dispute had caused the store's demise. Safeway spokesman Lawrence Johnson said the chain and the building owners were unable to agree on a lease, and had been renting on a month-to-month basis for a year.

"The store is in need of major repairs and upgrading. We can't make the commitment to invest in the store without some control of the lease," Johnson said.

The decision to close came finally, he said, because lease negotiation "had been a year, plus we were doing a review of all our properties. We certainly couldn't look too optimistically to the future."

But Robert Seefried, attorney for Dolores Montgomery, the principal owner, said he learned of the Safeway move when a Cleveland Park resident called. "It was a total surprise, frankly," Seefried said.

According to Seefried, the owners contacted Safeway long before the lease expired in September 1986, offering the building for renewal or sale. But Safeway officials, fighting a takeover bid by Washington's Haft family, said they could not make any decisions, Seefried said.

As time passed with no proposals by Safeway, the attorney said, the owners decided to sell the property. "They are elderly women who don't need the day-to-day hassles of managing a property like that," Seefried said. Still, he said, the owners gave Safeway the option to buy, and recommended that other prospective buyers sign the store on as a tenant.

Though he declined to disclose the lease rate or purchase price of the property, Seefried said the building is still for sale.

The 7,000-square-foot Soviet Safeway's demise resulted partly from the trend of supermarket chains to close small stores, even profitable ones, to concentrate on megamarkets offering pate slabs, pasta salads, bins of coffee beans, pharmacies, bakeries, enormous salad bars and small appliances.

Safeway Inc., which closed about 45 stores in the District in 1968-86, felt an accelerated need to economize after last year's takeover bid by the Haft family's Dart Group Corp. Safeway resisted with a leveraged buyout, leaving the Haft family with a $140 million profit, and Safeway with a $4 billion debt. Since then, the chain has closed 331 stores nationwide. In the District, however, Safeway plans to open a 40,000-square-foot store early next year in East River Park near Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE.

After the closing of the Capitol Hill Safeway, the District government formed a Supermarket Task Force to evaluate neighborhood needs and available sites, according to Dan Acker of the Office of Business and Economic Development. The task force has studied sites "in the general area" of the Cleveland Park Safeway, Acker said, but he declined to identify them.

In the meantime, D.C. Council member Jim Nathanson (D-Ward 3), whose ward includes Cleveland Park, has set up a Monday meeting with Safeway's Johnson. Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Roger Burns has scheduled a meeting for 11 a.m. Saturday at the Cleveland Park library, to "give the public an update on what's going on and to hopefully found a community organization" to keep a store nearby.

Already, hand-lettered signs saying "Save Our Safeway -- Protest Today" hang in the neighborhood. And Hubbard said, "In Cleveland Park, nobody takes anything lying down."