Ginger Hupfer often stopped in the shop with her sisters to browse.

At first, the bargains--fine secondhand clothes and household goods sold dirt cheap--drew the women to the place. But that was before Hupfer's cancer came back.

In the end, Hupfer, 61, returned regularly to the Discovery Shop in Bowie to sort and sell clothes, fight back against the disease that was killing her and work beside fellow volunteers who understood when she needed to sit, cry, talk or be silent.

That, her sisters say, is the real value of the shop opened by the American Cancer Society seven years ago as part of a 100-store nationwide chain to raise money year-round. In a five-state region that includes Maryland, the District and Virginia, only four stores remain--in Bowie, Severna Park, Roanoke and Virginia Beach. The Rockville store recently closed.

At the Bowie store, volunteers, most of whom have suffered from cancer or lost a close relative to the disease, work shifts to keep the business running smoothly Tuesday through Saturday. Shoppers who might not feel comfortable giving their hard-earned dollars to a huge charity find it easier to do so when they walk away with a gently used Carole Little suit or a mink stole.

At any time, a donor might walk through the door with bags and hangers of clothes belonging to a loved one who died of cancer, then linger for a while to share memories of the person.

So, imagine everyone's shock and disappointment when they heard the American Cancer Society was planning to close the Bowie shop in June because it was not raising enough money. The move would have been understandable if the agency was losing money to keep the store afloat. But the Discovery Shop was making enough money to pay its own bills, including the manager's salary, and contribute to the agency's coffers.

In 1996-97, the Bowie shop netted a profit of about $15,000, which grew to $17,282 the next year. The figures from the most recent 1998-99 fiscal year are still being tallied, officials say.

But in the world of "nonprofit" fund-raising, the Bowie store's contributions must have looked like peanuts. The Roanoke shop, for example, rakes in net profits of more than $80,000 a year.

"I feel that it doesn't make a difference how much money we give to the American Cancer Society," said Florita Washington, manager of the Bowie shop and its only paid staff member. "I feel we are more than money. We are a beacon to the community."

It's a shame that the American Cancer Society did not recognize that right away.

A few weeks before the store was set to close, though, officials changed their minds. They didn't suddenly find a heart. Instead, they discovered that the agency was bound by a lease to pay rent at the store's current location, 6904 Laurel-Bowie Rd., until 2001.

James Rogers, spokesman for the American Cancer Society's Washington area, said the agency does not set a fund-raising quota for the shops.

"We do take a look at whether this is an efficient way to raise money," he said. "Nationwide, the public trusts us with half a billion dollars each year. We have to spend it wisely. We did take a look at that Discovery Shop, and the final decision was made to keep it open."

The shop's increasing revenue and volunteer strength contributed to the decision to keep the store open, Rogers said. But the flap has left some volunteers uneasy that the shop is secure only until the lease expires.

Still, they say they were happy with the reprieve.

"I feel I'm giving back to the community, as well as helping a nationwide cause," said Lynn E. Morrison, 62, a Bowie resident who has been volunteering since she spotted a notice in a local paper.

As some volunteers milled around the front of the store to help customers, she sat on a chair and sorted through clothes in a back room filled with boxes, hangers and a steam iron. She pulled an aqua-colored jogging suit from the pile, unfolded and inspected it. It was in good condition, except for a tiny hole in the leg.

"I can take this home and patch it," she said.

The shop solicits mostly upscale items, and only the best-preserved pieces make it to the floor. Racks of clothes and shoes, mostly for women and children, are neatly arranged by type and size in a boutique setting. A back room displays household items--two shelves of books, a small desk, a chess game, picture frames and sets of stoneware, silver and china.

Rosemarie Korphage, 55, of Bowie, a volunteer whose mother died of breast cancer, said she finds comfort talking to customers. A time or two, grieving donors have come in with nearly the entire estate of a parent.

"Sometimes, they need to vent," Korphage said. "Sometimes, they need to talk. They bring in things that are treasures in their lives. They need to know the things are going to be handled with care, handled with love, that they are going to be used for good."

Tears froze in Kathie Singer's eyes as she talked about her father. Singer, 53, of Bowie, began working at the Discovery Shop after he died of cancer five years ago.

"My sisters and I took care of him," she said softly, trying hard not to blink. "I decided to use the grief positively. So, this was a good place to do it. It's not an ordinary store."

Once, Singer said, a donor came in with an armful of clothes. The woman told the workers the clothes belonged to her son, whose brain cancer was diagnosed 10 years ago. Despite several surgeries, some of the cancer remained, the mother said. But the young man survived and is pursuing a doctorate in cell biology.

It might seem that all the talk about cancer would be depressing, but that's not so. Washington, the store manager and a breast cancer survivor, keeps the mood upbeat. She is quick to laugh and extend a hug, but she does not shy away from the pain.

"We're basically a place where people can go to talk about their struggles, whatever they're going through," she said. "A lot of people can't talk about cancer because they think it's a death sentence. When they see I talk about it, it opens them up."

Maybe that's what kept volunteer Ginger Hupfer returning to the shop in June, when she was so weak from breast cancer that she could do little more than sit.

She died on July 3, just two weeks after working her last shift.

"She was a wonderful, warm, outgoing person," Carole Clancy, 63, said of her sister. "She loved people, and she loved to be around the action. She didn't want to just stay at home and let this thing happen to her."

A week after Hupfer's death, Clancy and another sister, Jeanne Hennessy, 51, showed up at the Discovery Shop with a donation: a tan leather coat that had been Ginger's favorite, her old jacket and a few other things.

"We really wanted things of hers to be there," Clancy said.

Those are the kinds of profits that can't be measured in dollars and cents.

To comment or suggest a story idea, feel free to write me at 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20772; send me an e-mail at frazierL@washpost.com; or call me at 301-952-2083.