There was a time when the corner-store atmosphere and the homemade Italian sausage at Santullo's Market were right at home on Alexandria's Duke Street.

But that was before a river of rush-hour traffic turned Duke Street into a major thoroughfare and the opening of the King Street Metro stop nearby sent property values and sleek new office buildings shooting up.

Now Santullo's, with its green neon sign and its proud 75-year-old proprietor, Joseph Santullo, is a little slice of history that refuses to fade into the past.

A lot of people want to buy Santullo's and replace it with another of those upscale offices. "If I wanted to sell, I could put an ad in the Alexandria paper and have 25 buyers by tonight," Santullo said. "That's how many people want this place."

And the city, which has widened Duke street to five lanes near the store, also wants Santullo's to yield to progress. Although municipal officials have given up plans to relocate the market, they want to make room for a wider street by slicing off the front of Santullo's building and moving his front door around to the side.

As is his custom, Santullo isn't budging.

"It's a Mexican standoff," Santullo said recently, as he busily wrapped packages of pig's ears in his butcher shop. "I haven't heard a thing from the city. And I don't want anything to do with the damn state or the city.

"I got to play my cards close to the vest right now. I got a lawyer. And if they try to do anything, then I'll make my move. But I ain't going anywhere. You tell the city I'm going to be here forever."

Dayton Cook, Alexandria's transportation director, doesn't dispute Santullo's claim. But Cook says that accommodating Santullo will be expensive and that for some drivers it has already been inconvenient.

"He's the bottleneck," Cook said. "We have three pieces of property to acquire right there when we widen the street, and he's been the most difficult.

"We're going to acquire the land in such a way that he will have to reconfigure the store but will not have to relocate. That's going to cost the city money; it would actually be cheaper to condemn the store and let him open somewhere else.

"But he's been there a long time," Cook said. "He was happy with the status quo, but the status quo isn't good enough."

The status quo began for Santullo almost as long ago as he can remember, when his father first opened Santullo's Market just across the street from its current home. Along with a brother and a sister, Santullo eventually inherited the store. It has been, he says, his only job.

"I started sweeping the floor when I was 5," Santullo said. "If I didn't work, I didn't eat. Times have gotten better since then, I guess. But if I had to go out of here and try, I wouldn't know how to earn a living at anything else."

The store is much more than a business for Santullo; it is his home. He lives in a second-floor apartment that sits inconspicuously atop the market and the warehouse behind it. Most of his employes are either family members or longtime friends, and a crop of nieces and nephews is preparing to take charge of the market later on.

But if Santullo's vigor is any indication, the third generation will have to wait a while.

A gruff man who looks younger than his years, Santullo is the picture of a small-town grocer circa 1950: His white butcher's apron doubles as a hand towel, tattoos line both forearms and a gold St. Christopher's medal hangs around his neck. Everything stops when a regular customer pops in for a chat.

He doesn't think much of the studied quaintness and the yuppies who have invaded Alexandria's waterfront in recent years. "There is no such thing as Old Town," Santullo said mischievously. "I remember when it had other names and it was a ghetto.

"I wouldn't go down there if you paid me," said Santullo, whose property is about a mile away. "Let all those people from New York and New Jersey and Pennsylvania come down and pay too much for everything. I got what I need right here."

Certainly, Santullo has the energy to go a few rounds with the city. And some sort of battle appears to be on the horizon.

Cook said the city and the state, which are working together to widen Duke Street, have worked out a compromise that they hope will satisfy everyone. They want Santullo to give up about 17 feet of space at the front of his store and move his main entrance to the west side, where customers could come and go directly from an existing parking lot.

The city hopes to begin acquiring land soon, Cook said, and is scheduled to begin widening the street in January 1989. "We would have to approach Mr. Santullo soon, because he's got to start remodeling his building in the middle of next year if we get to start the road on time," Cook said.

Cook also takes a less romantic view of Santullo's presence amid the new prosperity of Duke Street. Santullo's aging building and a large garage out back, Cook said, are evidence that the land is "underutilized."

In blunter terms, Cook added, "He sticks out there like a sore thumb."

The city's road builders "have sort of gotten used to being the bad guys in situations like this," Cook said. "But we've got to do our job. The big fight is over. Some people just haven't accepted the answer."

Santullo, who says he knows nothing about the city's plans and cares less, says he has just begun to fight.

"I'm not going anyplace," he said. "If they've got anything to say, I'm right here. And I'm going to be here when they get through.

"This place is all I've ever done. And I plan to keep on doing it."