The eye pans down the long shelves of groceries: Lady Curzon soup from England, $3.49 for a 14 1/2-oz. can. Two different kinds of green turtle soup. Three kinds of capers. Cookies and cakes in tins from England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Holland, Denmark, Sweden and the District of Columbia. Twenty-four different kinds of mustard.
You're in Neam's Market at P Street and Wisconsin Avenue, the heart of Georgetown, one of the few grocery stores anywhere that still delivers, the corner store for presidents and ambassadors, a place once called by Newsweek the most expensive market in the world.
Rich Georgetown matrons brush shoulders with the chauffeurs of even richer Georgetown matrons. The dogs who sit outside and habitually trip the electric eye that opens the sliding glass door are the cream of the dog world. The three brothers, George, Jack and Edmond Neam, brought up in the apartment over the store when their father Najeeb opened it in 1909, seem to thrive in this rarefied atmosphere.
In those days it was a working class neighborhood, and the shop featured candy and a soda fountain and tobacco. The chic people came in with Franklin Roosevelt.
"Now, I need a simply perfect cauliflower," announces a gray-haired grande dame. "Do you have a perfectly white cauliflower today?"
Ted Kaminski, who orders the produce and takes the phone orders ($100 a month minimum), nods serenely. Of course they have a perfect cauliflower.
They also have out-of-season strawberries, seedless grapes at $3.49 a pound and other exotica. And Mennonite wheat flour, and dark rye, and raw sugar, and lichee nuts.
"Do you have pappadums?" asks a woman of little faith. Of course they have pappadums, even though there was a run on them last week.
At the meat counter a young woman in a designer down coat asks briskly. "How are your kidneys today?" Without missing a beat, Richardo and Ed, the butchers, trot out their kidneys. They can give you any cut you want: a crown roast of lamb, a pork crown, sweet-breads, gorgeous white milk-fed veal from Delaware, their homemade sausage. One couple drives up from Williamsburg just to get the meat here.
Jim Parker, another of the 16 employes (driver Bob Williams has been there 18 years), runs the cheese and bakery section. He stocks at least 60 regular imported cheeses plus some novelties. There are quiches and tortes and croissants and fancy cookies, sandwich meats and salads. You can even buy fuses and toothpaste at Neam's.
"We do a classy trade here," says Jack Neam. "Eisenhower used to have his bibb lettuce brought from Indiana. Half our business is charge. About a third is phone and delivery. We go to Chevy Chase and McLean and all over."
Now the customers are pouring in: workmen from a nearby street job buying something for lunch, rich kids loading up with candy -- on the tick, maids from the grand houses getting floor polish or pastry shells, a uniformed chauffeur to pick up a last-minute order.
Bagged meat orders are piled in the frozen-food counter. One contains a ham and chicken for "Valenti."
By 6 p.m. closing time there will be a considerable line at the two checkout counters. These are mostly university students and bus riders on the way home from work and the everlasting Georgetown shoppers. They pay the premium prices because the place is so handy. With this crowd, Neam's looks almost like an ordinary small chain store.
But it isn't. It's still an old-fashioned grocery. All you have to do is sniff.