The changes in the routine of the Germantown Post Office over the past few years have always been gradual, never dramatic. But they give a hint of what is happening to this once-tiny Montgomery County town.

It was about five years ago that postmaster Noah Hubbard moved his operation out of the back of Herbert King's general store and into the long low post office building that had just been completed a mile to the west. Hubbard was getting ready for the suburbs that were coming to town.

Where there were once only silos, farms and a railroad, town houses were moving in Germantown was still 25 miles northwest of downtown Washington, but Interstate 270 had telescoped that distance, and brought the suburbs with it.

Noah Hubbard passed another milestone two years ago, when he switched over from a rural to an urban delivery system for all but two small sections of his town. It was the packages that had really gotten to him.

"We used to sit outside and honk when we had something too big to put in a mailbox," Hubbard recalled recently. "It took a while, but I finally persuaded the people who run things downtown that there was a problem with sitting outside a cluster of 16 town houses and honking."

Behind the small post office anteroom where Hubbard is sitting, half the long rows of lights in the main room remain unlit. Half the post office boxes are still unassigned, waiting for the people who are supposed to fill the town.

They have not come in quite on schedule. Once, the planners thought the Germantown that held 3,000 people in 1970 would hold 10,000 or more by today. The actual figure is closer to 6,000, and development is just now beginning to accelerate.

"Everything's gone a lot slower than people expected," Hubbard said recently. "There's been a tight money market, there's been a moratorium on new sewer hookups. But I think that's all an advantage. Instead of facing a nightmare overnight, you grow into it, and it isn't a nightmare any more."

His assistant, Evelyn Lambert, has lived in Germantown for 35 years. She has no regrets about the changes. "Something that just makes me tired," she said, "is people who talk about the good old days."

"I wouldn't ever want to go back to that," she said. Even now, she has to drive eight miles to Damascus to do her grocery shopping; the coming of shopping centers will be a welcome relief to her.

Her eagerness for change is not unusual, at least in Germantown, but the feelings of Evelyn Lambert and most of the old-time residents like her has surprised some developers and planners who have been through the farms-to-subdivision process before.

"With one real exception, old Germantown has not resisted the change. That's pretty unusual," said developer Stanley Hoffberger. John Matthias, a planner with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission agreed that "the old people in Germantown are in favor of this, and that is weird.

"It's the exurbanites of the 50s who are not so happy about the other people coming out to join them," he added.

Even among the old people, there are occasional twinges of regret, an occasional small stab of nostalgia for the world that is passing. "People are still very close here," said postmaster Hubbard. "But it's just going to be a matter of time before we lose that personal touch."

Fearful of that anonymous future, a few people in town are trying to instill both old and new residents with a sense of community and a sense of place. It is however, hard in a place that is constantly changing.

"Getting new people to feel a sense of community identity is difficult," explained Pat Olson, herself an exurbanite who fled the down-county suburbs in the 1950s and settled in Germantown. "As newer people come in, it's going to get even less cohesive. Newer people are more transient," she said.

The increasing sense of transience is only one problem besettign people like Pat Olson who want to make people feel a part of the town. Another serious roadblock to her efforts is the physical distance between the growing clusters of homes scattered within the three-by-five mile area of the town.

To the east of I-270, there are trailer parks, and older subdivisions like Meadowbrook. To the west of the highway, there is the Churchill subdivision. Then, four miles to the south down Clopper Road, a flurry of new subdivisions ending with Cinnamon Woods, where all the streets are named for spices.

"When you think about it, where is Germantown?" asked Father Leonard Hurley a Catholic priest who is trying to build a congregation in the Mother Seton parish, and is also working with Pat Olson to pull the whole community (18 separate subdivision and trailer park associations) together under the umbrella of the Germantown Alliance.

This group is also trying to give these people a sense of common interests and common goals.

There are some triumphs. After a long period of indecision, Montgomery College was persuaded to put a campus in Germantown. And after a fight, Montgomery County officials were persuaded not to put a landfill and a sludge dump there.

But when there are no enemies to fight, it is still difficult to draw together the crazy-quilt layers of people who have moved into town. "Germantown isn't," said Father Hurley somewhat acidly. "Not yet. There's an area in northern Montgomery County called Germantown, but there's nothing to get people to coalesce around."