Dwight James walked into a cluttered side room of his Aldie Country Store one recent morning, frowned and moved his hand across a wall display of purple, green and orange rubber worms.

Like other goods in his general store, the fishing worms have been hanging there for months, untouched by the carpenters, masons and other workers who account for most of his business.

With the job market ailing and gas prices rising, James said, his rural customers buy single beers nowadays instead of six-packs, packs of cigarettes instead of cartons, and very little fishing gear.

"They're more apt to dig some worms themselves," said James, 46. "They just don't have the extra money to put into anything."

The Aldie Country Store sits in rural Aldie along Route 50, between Gilberts Corner and Middleburg, about 35 miles from Washington in eastern Loudoun County.

It is the sort of place where workers have long stopped for coffee and easy chatter on the way to relatively high-paying jobs in Washington and the surrounding suburbs. A kerosene heater sits in the middle of the store. Photos of customers with prize fish hang above the cash register.

The drop in sales at the Aldie Country Store and others like it shows how rural areas around Washington have been hit by the same economic malaise that has gripped real estate markets and quieted suburban malls, James and others say. Ron Eamich, of Loudoun County's Office of Social Services, said another sign is the recent surge in requests for aid for food, rent and mortgage payments.

More than 170,000 people in the Washington area live in areas considered rural, despite a decades-long push by suburbia. Although the cost of living is generally lower in rural communities, those who commute to construction jobs were among the first to feel the pain of the downturn. Housing starts alone dropped by 23 percent since January.

"The guys who climb the ladders and pound the nails are the first to be told, 'Look, we don't need you,' " said Roger Snyder, head of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association. Paul Brown, of the Loudoun County Office of Community Employment Services, said his agency has seen a sharp increase in the number of people seeking help in finding work.

"All the businesses along the {commuter} corridors are affected," Brown said, referring to stores and gas stations along highways such as Routes 7 and 50. "Most of the rural folks are commuters. They are very much affected."

That's not news at the Aldie Country Store. In good times, customers would drop $5 or $10 on T-shirts, hats, pocket knives -- just about anything that suited their fancy, said Vicki Frazier, who operates the store for James, her brother. Now, she said, things are different.

For months her customers have put off the extras such as fishing gear and even some essentials, she said. Because of a 30 percent drop in sales, a supplier cut visits to the shop from four a month to two. Customers who do work carry lunch bags more often, she said, and every week she hears tales of more layoffs.

"People are looking for anything. They're wanting to charge. More and more, people are asking for accounts," Frazier said. "We're not opening any more."

David Moore, a landscaper from Upperville who stopped at the Aldie Country Store for cigarettes, said he and two friends still had work. But they have to watch their money because their commute to the suburbs was getting more expensive by the day. "Gas prices," he said. "It's killing us."

Ken Crouse, who builds fences, said he bought a cup of soda because it was cheaper than a bottle. The people who order fences from him aren't paying him as quickly as they did a year ago, so he had less money in his pocket than normal. "Most of the people I work for are rich people," he said. "You wouldn't think it would take them longer."

With 120 residents and 44 houses, Aldie has changed little over the past few decades. The village grew up around an early 19th century mill. It now has the store, which opened in 1928, a post office, antiques shops and several historic buildings.

The store isn't the only business having problems. Owners of several antiques stores said they have had some of their slowest Saturdays in years, as people from Washington and the suburbs have cut back on excursions to the country. Part of it is gas prices, part of it the economy, the store owners say.

"I'm open seven days a week, and absolutely nothing. I haven't sold five cents worth," said Carolyn Cockerille, of Stone House Antiques. "It's been like this all summer . . . . Everybody's complaining."

A local rescue worker said the downturn has had one benefit.

Accidents on Route 50 have dropped by more than half, to about one a month, said Deirdre Jepsen, rescue chief of the Arcola-Pleasant Valley Volunteer Fire Department. A new traffic light on the highway helped, but most of the drop has to do with the economy's effect on the number of commuters, she said.

"People are out of work and they're not going to work," she said. "And we see it."