Once this was a friendly place for reporters. Not any more.

In 1976, and the months following Jimmy Carter's election, Plains had a love affair with the press. It reveled in the national spotlight, as stars of the modern media portrayed it as an all-American town.

The press has descended on Plains once again, but the circumstances -- and the reception -- are quite different.

This time, rather than detailing the antics of this quaint country community, we are mucking our way through a mountain of dusty records, grilling those few who will talk for a tidbit about Billy Carter.

Each morning, reporters and a retinue of Georgians gather in the dining room of the Best Western Inn in Americus, 10 miles from here, where they are joined in the peculiar ritual of Waiting for Billy.

The president's brother often zips down the highway from his Buena Vista home to sip coffee, trade tales with friends and -- sometimes -- parry with reporters, but because of his frequent travel, no one knows ahead of time whether Billy will appear.

So we wait -- his cronies at the large round table in the front of the room, his would-be interviewers at smaller tables, facing the entrance. Suddenly, Billy appears and sits with his friends, who are not happy with the reporters.

"I don't see why he talks to any of you" says Jimmy Murray, the owner of the Best Western and one of Billy's closest friends. "You're just down here to murder him."

Billy's mother, Miss Lillian, once happy to offer matronly insights on her two sons, last week sent her dog out after a reporter who appeared on the door step with a polite request for an interview.

The circle around Billy Carter has grown tighter these days. Those, like Murray, who spoke freely about their friend in happier days, have clammed up. Those who see Billy and will talk at all demand to know why he can't be left alone, why his involvement with Libya is anyone's business. Like Billy, they say he shouldn't face any special scrutiny because he happens to have had the same parents as the president of the United States.

They reject the argument that Billy must face such scrutiny because he has chosen to seek profit from his relationship. And at the same time, many of them feed on their tie to one of the president's kin, just as Billy does himself.

Jimmy Murray, for example, has posted a sign around Americus and its environs that reads: "Billy Says Stay at the Best Western Inns of Americus." He doubtless cries all the way to the bank as reporters flocking to grill Billy fill his motel to capacity.

Others appear fed up with Billy Carter. Wrote the editor of the weekly Plains Georgia Monitor in a recent issue, "The people in Plains don't give a damn about [Billy's] newest problems."

The business community of Plains, however, does miss him. With no presidential brother to pose for pictures, with the high price of gas, inflation, and a drop in the chief executive's popularity, for those who sought to cash in on the tourist trade, the boom has gone bust.

"Business is slow, slow, slow," says Annie Ruth Thomas, who helps her husband run Thomas' Grocery, Plains' only black-owned business.

Merchants along the community's tidy two-block Main Street say trade has dropped as much as 80 percent. The signs of decline are all over Plains, and in a town of 683 they are not hard to spot.

From his Main Street antique shop, the president's cousin Hugh Carter now hawks autographed copies of his book for $7.95. Two years ago, the memoir went for $12.95.

Plains businessman John Williams this week prepared to close one of his three tourist shops, the Peanut Patch, and doubts the current traffic can support both of the others.

Williams has a sizable stock of one of the few souvenir items whose price has gone up: Billy Beer, now up to $1 a can.