Shuffling along the linoleum floor in three loose lines, customers at the Bloomingdale Community Center quietly fan themselves with their welfare checks and food stamp cards, patiently awaiting their turn with the cashier.
It looks like a scene from a bank at the first of the month, except there are no checking or savings accounts here. Nonetheless, this is a burgeoning financial institution, perhaps the most unusual in Washington.
"Just call us a poor man's bank," says William Suiter, 34, the son of a respected U Street NW numbers banker (gambler). With the benefit of his father's lessons, Suiter has started his own financial establishment.
Filling a void left by the withdrawal of many banks from the federal food stamp distribution program, the Bloomingdale Community Centers, I and II, are now the largest food stamp vendors in town.
Against a backdrop of flashing yellow marquee lights that advertise the attractions -- "Food Stamps/Checks Cashed/Money Orders" -- the centers' owners, Billy Suiter and his brother, Joe, 32, control the papers that provide each month's groceries for an estimated 55,000 residents.
The brothers are not, of course, operating a charity -- for each food stamp sale, the vendors receive $1 from the city government, and this amounts to nearly $12,000 a month.
Mayor Marion Barry announced yesterday that the city will establish 23 new food stamp distribution locations to handle a steady increase in the District's food stamp caseload. But the new locations were not expected to cut into the multiservice business of the "poor man's bank."
The two Bloomingdale centers, situated in black neighborhoods on both sides of the Anacostia River, provide courtesies that many welfare recipients say are rarely extended to them in more conventional banking institutions.
They are clean, with freshly painted cinderblock walls and bilingual food stamp instructions, but there is nothing fancy about these Bloomingdales. The centers are little more than two rooms, each about the size of a two-car garage, divided by bullet-proof glass.
"We just recognized a need in the community and it paid off," Billy Suiter said. "Basically, nobody wanted to be bothered with poor people," Suiter said. "The banks had their 'preferred' customers, so the people came to us."
The payoff of nearly $12,000 a month for food stamp transactions alone was even bigger than the Suiter brothers had expected.
That may not sound like much for, say, a large savings and loan institution, but for two small businessmen who do not work an eight-hour day, it has been good money.
A typical food stamp transaction is quite simple, now that cash is no longer required. A food stamp customer now presents the vendor with a stamp eligibility card issued by the city's Department of Human Resources. The vendor then issues booklets of stamps -- worth $50 to more than $500 depending on a family's dependents and income.
For each transaction, the Suiters receive one dollar.
In addition, the Suiters are paid a $2 check-cashing fee for every $100 cashed. Money orders are issued at cost if customers become members of the Bloomingdale center. The annual membership fee is $12.
Seated in a bullet-proof glass office with a golfer's cap eased down over one eye, Suiter stroked his chin and wondered aloud, "Who would have thought that you could make it like this? I mean, who had the crystal ball?"
The signs were as clear as the lines of welfare mothers who ties up first-of-the-month traffic at local banks in the early 1970s. A bank survey determined that a food stamp transaction took 3 1/2 minutes -- longer than any other. Those lines had to go.
To help ease this problem, some banks had tried such maneuvers as opening side windows and establishing certain times of day for food stamp customers. That didn't work either.
"It gives us problems with our regular customers," said Robert Hileman, a vice president at the Riggs National Bank. "Food stamp people swarm the lobby and customers can't get in to take care of their normal business. We did lose some accounts because of it."
At the same time, Billy and Joe Suiter were struggling owners of the Bloomingdale Liquor Store, at First St. and Rhode Island Ave. NW, when they decided to go into vending food stamps.
"We knew how people felt about the way the banks were treating them," Billy Suiter said, "so we got ourselves a food stamp vending license and a motto: "We'll take anybody but a dead body.'"
The Suiter brothers opened their community centers in October 1976. Now they plan to establish two more in Baltimore.
In Washington, only 11 banks now participate in the D.C. food stamp program and they handle less than 10 percent of the business.
Across the country, establishments similar to the Bloomingdale Community Centers have cropped up, filling the void.
The Bloomingdale centers are open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. six days a week, one of their most appealing features.
"Sometimes the mail doesn't arrive with your check until late and the banks are already closed," said Constance Turner, a grandmother who relies on the Suiters' services to help feed 12 people each day. "You know when you get up in your years it's hard to get around. Now all I have to do is walk down the street."
Other Bloomingdale customers said they enjoyed the Suiter brothers' courtesy and the friendly ambience of the Bloomingdale centers -- a welcome relief they said, from what they described as discourteous treatment at larger banks.
"Some of those girls (tellers) downtown just roll their eyes when they see a welfare person coming in. It's like you are less than human if you have a government check," said Beverly McAlpine, another grandmother who lives on Seaton Place NW near the Bloomingdale center.
According to the Suiters, their treatment of customers is the main reason for the success of the Bloomingdale centers.
"We just want to do right by people," Billy Suiter said. "You won't find any coldness around here. We want to get personally involved with people and their problems. We see them every month, so we make sure we have friendly tellers at all windows."
The Suiters learned their business sense from their father, William Suiter, Sr., who, aside from the numbers trade, was also a professional tailor.
"He was no hoodlum. No gun in his pocket. That was not his story," said Frederick Wainwright, a financial consultant and close friend. "In a day when a black man could not go downtown for a soda and sandwich, he was preparing to send his children to college. Vision, man. Get an education and get into real estate was what he preached. His word was his bond on the street."
When William Suiter died in 1962, he left his family a comfortable nest egg -- several pieces of profitable inner city property scattered about town.
To his oldest son, Billy, he left his knack for numbers.
"My mother said she was not going to go through that (gambling) all over again with me," Billy Suiter said. "She gave me the property that my dad left, told me to sell some and get myself a business . . . . I owe her for everything."
As he relaxed one recent evening in his office after tabulating the day's receipts, Billy Suiter sighed, "This food stamp thing ought to do pretty good. Maybe I can start living again. With the liquor business it was 18-hour days, six days a week. Here I am 34 and my brother is 32. There's got to be more to life I haven't ever been to a go-go."