Dennis Demory is a treasure hunter.
A 57-year-old grocery clerk with a penchant for tinkering, he begins his quest at a shelf overflowing with $1 bags of potpourri. Next, he eyeballs $1 phone cords, then $1 glow-in-the-dark spiders and $1 pastel note paper.
He's seen it all before.
Suddenly, a satisfied grin spreads across his face.
"Now this is something new!" he exults, plucking a bingo marker from a waist-high bin. "Once they find out these are here, there won't be any left."
They, Demory explains, are his kindred spirits, inveterate bargain-seekers drawn to the Dollar Tree in Leesburg--and a plethora of stores just like it near and far--by the thrill of the hunt. Not to mention the near certainty that they can fill their shopping carts without draining their piggy banks.
Besides Dollar Tree, there's Dollar Depot, Dollar Express, Dollar Land, Dollar General Stores--they circle the Beltway, a modern-day Stonehenge paying tribute to our give-me-a-price-break culture. Farther flung are Dollar Queen, Dollar King, Dollar Palace, Dollar Plus (plus what? plus tax?), Dollar Up, Dollar Avenue, Dollar City, Dollar America, Dollar World, Dollar Depot, Dollar Dealin'.
For variations on the theme, there's Everything's a Dollar, Everything's a Buck and--for the seriously penurious--Everything's 99 Cents.
Some of these shrines to frugality remain true to their name: Everything they have is a buck. Others, though, dangle the word "dollar" flirtatiously, offering some items for $2, say, or two for $7, or even the outrageously priced two for $12.
Whatever, there is no shortage of customers in this flourishing marketplace, which attracts shoppers both purposeful and accidental, the dyed-in-the-wool spendthrift side by side with the classic impulse buyer. Dollar General alone added about 600 shops in the last year, while Dollar Tree grew by more than 200.
Their inventory ranges from the practical to the exotic. The other day in Burtonsville, a dollar-shopper could buy not only "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot," a political commentary by Al Franken, but also "Al Franken Is a Buck-Toothed Moron," a rebuttal penned by J.P. Mauro.
In Herndon, ice scrapers marked "Grandma's Car" compete for shelf space with faux stained-glass suncatchers with images of Jesus, Mary and praying hands.
To understand the genius of the dollar store, come shopping with Fannie Wilson. Wilson, 41, has come to the Burtonsville Dollar Tree with her 5-year-old daughter, her sister and her sister's little boy to buy a large decorated bag for a birthday party.
One bag. One buck.
Every time she enters a dollar store, it's "Oh my goodness, I could use this," then "Oh, I could use that," Wilson confesses. This particular day, the thises and thats include air freshener, Mentos, bubble bath, floor cleaner, Barbie and Ken shoes for her daughter, a toy cell phone for her nephew and magic slates for both. ("Mommy, Mommy!" is harder to resist when the price tag for a thank-you hug is just $1.)
Wilson and her sister wind up at the checkout with a cart full of things they admit they may or may not use. The $21 total just about empties their pockets.
"That was not the plan," Wilson says. "That was not the plan."
Clerks at dollar stores say they attract a unique subset of quirky customers. Foremost among them: the ones who ask for help carrying puny bags out to their illegally parked luxury sedans, or the people who come in each week and buy 30 of the same item (sunglasses, maybe, or jars of instant coffee) and, the clerks are certain, resell them elsewhere. And oooh, this irks them but good: customers who pick things up and say, unbelievingly, "This is a dollar?"
And there are always a few who want a bargain on a bargain.
Natalie Sines, 18, recalls working at the Dollar Store in Burtonsville one night when a woman approached with $39 worth of baking pans, gift wrap, Bible story puzzles and yo-yos. The woman asked if she could get a dollar off the yo-yos since she was buying so many.
"We don't do that, sorry," Sines told her.
"If this was Hecht's, you wouldn't ask that," she says later. "It's already a dollar! How much of a break do they want us to give?"
Paying a buck an item is just fine with Ed Wiley III, 39, a new dollar store enthusiast who recently bought a $17 paint set for his niece elsewhere, then found a comparable item in a local dollar store.
Wiley, who discovered dollar stores last year after hearing his mother and sisters rave about them, says he's not an impulse shopper by nature. Before he so much as steps foot in a department store, he envisions the suit he's after and the shoes to match. Even so, he's developed an affinity for the surprises that await him at the dollar store.
"I find myself finding things I don't expect," Wiley says during a quick stop at Dollar City in Falls Church. "I just pop in here to make sure I'm not missing anything."
On this day, Wiley is tempted by a glossy fishing lure but doesn't bite. "I'll bet I could hook something big with that," he says. "One day when I have time, I'll have to give that a closer look."
He'd better hurry. Merchandise gathers no dust in dollar stores; most of it moves off the shelves in short order. Some closeout items, in fact, are one-time deals, so not only can't you go in expecting to find a specific item--a rubber duckie, say--you can't go in expecting to find the rubber duckie you saw there just yesterday.
But unpredictability has its own appeal. Kerri Willey-Bootwala, 27, has long been a fan of the rapid turnover in the dollar store. "I always find little things here that just add to things, always something unexpected," she says. "It's just fun."
A few weeks ago, she picked up suction cups (10 for $1) for hanging her back scrubbers in the shower, contact paper for her cupboards and a football figurine for her little brother. On this day, she's at a Falls Church store looking for cleaning supplies when she spots something else.
"I need these, I really do," she says, tossing a package of chip bag clips into her shopping cart. "Oh, those are so cute," she purrs, eyeing some fruit-shaped candles. Two sets go into her cart. They're followed in quick order by five address books, a plastic pasta strainer, two fish-shaped trivets, plastic painting gloves, a hanging wire basket and three frosted glass vases that match her newly remodeled kitchen.
As for Demory, he's mesmerized by some playing cards and a box of envelopes, but after careful examination, he puts them back. The hunt goes on.
"Look at that," he says finally, squatting down to examine a six-inch-long metal pry bar. "I'm going to take that. That's neat."
Toss in a small vice grip, and Demory's out the door. "I got what I needed," he says. "Nice tools for a buck."
CAPTION: At the Dollar Tree store in Fairfax, Kera Carter, left, talks to Ruth Gilmore, back to the camera, as Jeri Yates arranges their purchases.
CAPTION: Dollar stores attract a variety of shoppers looking for the same thing--useful items at low prices.
CAPTION: Diane Cockrum, left, who asserts, "We live here," because she comes so often, persuaded friend Kate Miegel to check out the Dollar Tree store in Fairfax.
CAPTION: Stacks of the same item--and all priced at $1--line shelves at the Dollar Tree store.