They wear normal clothes but the store personnel call them 'angels.'

"We've had 30 or 40 of them," said Ron Horne, assistant manager of the Kmart store in Petaluma.

They are people who come in to pay down the layaway accounts of people who have been buying items bit-by-bit over time.

Some angels pay $50, some $100. One paid $500, said Horne, who has the pleasure of informing customers that they owe less payment than they did or even that they're paid up in full.

"We call the people right away. It's just unbelievable," he said. "And I get to take the money and thank the people and go through the whole thing. That's a really nice experience."

It's not only at Kmart that the tide of generosity has washed ashore.

Christal Anton, a manager at the Windsor Wal-Mart, said the store has seen plenty of anonymous layaway plan benefactors.

One person, she said, used $900 to pay off an entire account. Well, almost.

"They left 10 cents on it,"Anton said.

The angels have definite preferences in mind.

"They don't want to pay for someone's big-screen TV," said Horne. "They want to pay off kids' toys, or clothing."

Said Anton, "Anything for kids."

Recipients of the largesse are without fail astounded, Anton said.

"They've cried, it's really nice," she said. "I've cried too. Especially when it's someone who obviously needs help."

"It's a very sweet thing," said Saul Eisen, a Sonoma State University psychology professor whose interests include the psychology of building community.

The generous impulse, he suggested, is also a straightforward one.

"I don't think it's a mystery," he said. "I don't know where the idea comes from, but I bet some people think of that as a way to give back."

At the same time, he said, there is a broader benefit.

"It's a very effective, powerful way to affect the tone of personal and social mood," he said. "I don't think people intend to do that; I'm guessing its more of an individual kind of interest in helping human beings. But it can have that effect of spreading."

Layaway angels have surfaced only in recent years, Kmart officials said.

That may be because the use of layaway plans themselves has been resurgent — especially in the holiday season — driven by a poor economy that has left many people cash-poor but reluctant to pile debt on their credit cards.

Also, there is a safety fallback. Those who end up too far behind on their payments, said Kmart's Horne, have their purchase canceled and their money returned.

"Those are the ones that are the best," he said of those who experience a visit from a layaway angel.

"They figure it's a lost cause; they can't make their $15, $20 payment, whatever it is," he said. "So they get a call saying, &‘Guess what, someone paid $300 worth of your layaway!'"

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or