LET US NOT talk now of competition, debt, liabilities, corporate takeovers, bankruptcy and layoffs. That is the vocabulary of the retailers and financiers in speaking of Garfinckel's impending closing. But these are not words by which to remember Washington's downtown Garfinckel's. The stolid 1905 building at 14th and F streets, right behind the Willard Hotel, has become as much a monument to commercial Washington as the nearby edifices along the Mall are monuments to civic and cultural Washington.

It will be difficult to discuss the store in the past tense, but that is coming. Garfinckel's president gathered together many of the store's workers this week to announce a going-out-of-business sale. Too many owners, too much competition and fast-changing consumer taste defeated the store, which has been personified in news accounts as a "dowager," "the grand old lady," "a most elegant older friend."

Yes, Garfinckel's aged -- despite repeated attempts in past years to bring it up to date. The "with-it" quality never took. There are, of course, those of us who never thought the store went out of style in the first place, who pushed our way through the revolving doors thankful that what was to greet us was not blaring music and flashing lights and boutique modules but a sensible cosmetics counter where women once went to buy rouge, not "blush," a millinery that sold hats with elegant ribbons -- and a chocolatier. This was a store with a tearoom where people actually lunched and a bridal salon where prospective brides sat on settees to view the gowns. It was a store with a loyal sales staff who hovered outside the dressing rooms, stationers who remembered customers' middle initials and a pianist on Christmas Eve for the procrastinators among us who wished to avoid the melee at the malls. It was a store elegant enough to display some of the Phillips Collection paintings while the museum was being renovated.

Garfinckel's departure comes at a time when many of the city's planners and preservationists are talking about the importance of what they call a "living downtown" -- one with lots of street-level shops and residences, not just the ubiquitous office buildings. The vacancy at 14th and F will be an unhappy event in the life of Washington's retail core.

On hearing the news the other day, one saleswoman broke out a box of chocolates and said, "We might as well get fat now." A faithful, but evidently not numerous or faithful enough, clientele knows what she means.