MARYLAND AVENUE is, appropriately, the hub of antiquing in Annapolis. Dating back to 1696, it's one of the oldest commercial streets in the United States -- a fact that makes it all the more ironic that fewer antique shops line the avenue today than any time in recent memory.

"The number of antique shops on Maryland Avenue has gone down -- about two-thirds fewer than there were six years ago," says John Willoughby, as he slumps behind the oak desk at the front window of his tiny shop, The Ark & Dove, at 51 Maryland Avenue.

Willoughby is "the granddaddy" of the trade in Annapolis, someone you'd expect to find telling tales at any general store in rural America. He has a sharp eye for fine country- made antiques. For 20 years he has watched tourists come and dealers go along Maryland Avenue. "This is about the only street in town antique dealers can afford to be on anymore," he says. "But you try to rent a place along here and you'll find out why there's not many of us left."

He rattles off a list of dealers who have closed their doors: "Edward Lee retired, the Hobsons closed down, the Opsatas, they quit, that Port man died a year ago. This is my third location on Maryland Avenue," he says, grumbling about the size of his shop. "I had buildings sold out from under me twice before."

Commercial leases throughout downtown Annapolis have skyrocketed during the past few years. Dealers there are alarmed by new owners of a shop near Willoughby's who jacked up the rent to $1,400 from $550. They're saddened that the Indian Pueblo Gallery a few doors down went out of business in August. Stores catering to the town's boating frenzy or its tourist market, they say, can afford high rents. Antique dealers who depend on a limited clientele can't.

Still, some dealers survive. And some mavericks open new shops.

Willoughby's store is crammed with period country-made furniture, including several unusual pieces, such as a small Connecticut-made corner cupboard (c. 1720) priced at more than $1,000; a Delaware tilt- top table (c. 1760-65) with an exquisite patina; two Empire chests (c.830s) with hand-painted graining, about $400 each; and a rare ogee Federal mirror with a signed reverse-painted panel. Ask Willoughby what his best piece is and typically he says, "Ain't got one." In fact, he's got more than one. It's how he stays in business.

The newest kid on the block is John Cohen, who since late August has reintroduced high style to Annapolis antiquing. At 54 Maryland Avenue, John Cohen Antiques carries mostly formal American and English period furniture and accessories, such as a New York Chippendale mahogany slant-top desk (circa 1780) at $6,300, and a Hepplewhite sideboard (circa 1780s), signed Jacob Sanderson, for $5,000. Ironically, Cohen, who says business is "very much alive," is currently most excited about one of the few country American pieces he has -- a one-of- a-kind, country Windsor, bamboo- turned bench for $4,500. "It's unique," he says, "worth coming by to see."

When Ron Baldwin and his cousin Dennis Claude four years ago opened their shop, Baldwin and Claude, at 47 Maryland Avenue, they intended to sell rare books and manuscripts. Formerly a jewelry store with glass casing built into the walls, the place was perfect for keeping browsers from mishandling brittle pages and delicate bindings. "It was good for that," says Baldwin, "but when we started carrying furniture, we found we couldn't push the larger pieces against the cases. So we don't carry that many big pieces."

Today, the books take up a single corner surrounded by curios spanning two centuries. The shop's interior suits glass pieces well and smaller items like 19th-century Californa Mission baskets and a large collection of silver spoons. Baldwin positions furniture as best he can -- the 1810 coteback Windsor side chair near the back, the Hepplewhite tabletop mirror and chest (circa 1780-90) up front, the Empire sofa pushed to one side. Most customers, he says, are browsers and tourists -- people who don't know or don't often buy antiques. "Midshipmen come in and ask, 'Do you have anything antique here from the second world war?' " Baldwin rolls his eyes and laughs. "I tell them, 'You're lookin' at one . . .'

Turn of the Century, a small shop at 57 Maryland Avenue, opened three years ago when Louise Rich Cramer, a descendant of an old Annapolis family, decided to turn her love of Victorian, art deco and art nouveau pieces into a business. She has picked up other period antiques along the way.

Displayed between a Rose Medallion bowl (c. 1879) priced at $295 and an 1883 hand-colored engraving, for instance, is a table marked Regency Pembroke (c. 1820), crafted in mahogany from its turned legs to its single drawer. Cramer's collecting trips to New England and abroad have loaded the store's shelves and cases with "glass" and porcelains -- from signed Steubens to a beautiful 1760 Meissen bowl made in Germany ($950), from a prewar Natake toy tea set to an unusual German papier-m.ach,e doll (c. 1880) with its original dress, priced at $210.

Carrying a little of everything is a lesson Washingtonian Joel Litzky has learned, too, in the three years since opening Walnut Leaf Antiques. His card reads, "Specializing in period furniture, porcelain, cut glass, costume jewelry," and his shelves expand the description. It's the business he'll eventually retire to, but in the meantime his retired parents, Ruth and Jerry Litzky, run the shop, which recently moved to larger quarters at 50 Maryland Avenue.

"My son has wonderful taste, I think," says Ruth Litzky of the tidy shop that appears to have cornered the Annapolis market on cut glass. She picks out a button-and-bows designed cut-glass bowl ($395) as her favorite, but is eager to direct customers to a rack of old quilts in the back, an Ingram & Co. 30-hour shelf clock ($285) and an Empire claw- foot chest (c. 1840) for $695. "It has original Bennington knobs that alone, without the chest, would be worth a couple hundred," she whispers.

A newcomer to Annapolis' antique alley, at 49 Maryland Avenue, Joan's Gems is more likely to carry a small 1880 medicine chest or a walnut pressed-back chair than rubies and sapphires. Proprietor Joan Groat opened the shop last Thanksgiving and says she loves being "in town," but adds "parking is a serious problem in Annapolis. I can't even find a place to park."

Two blocks down at 29 Maryland Avenue, across from the historic Chase-Lloyd House, is the Gingerbread Shop. Since 1972, it has been a browser's delight where collectibles and old-but-not-antique tools and accessories (large ice tongs for $11.50, one-pound Indian juggling clubs for $9 a pair, boxes of porcelain door knobs at 75 cents) are underpriced while a huge copper pot at $350 seems high. That's the fun of this store -- spotting the bargains.

"We're doing this more as a fun shop," says Marian Lobdell, a co- owner whose enthusiasm outweighs her expertise in antiques. "If we'd been in it for a living we'd have starved to death long ago."

Lobdell's descriptions of pieces tend toward the ambiguous -- "the oldest thing that old widow had in her house" she says of a reproduction chair. But many of the items reveal a good eye for conversation pieces, such as a large selection of yellowing postcards and old linens tucked away in the drawers of a black walnut Allison chest (c.850s).

A few antique dealers have moved to Annapolis Street, a block beyond the Naval Academy Stadium, where suburban rents are lower.

Country Finds, at 103 Annapolis Street for the past five years, stocks beautiful handcrafts and folk art -- including hydrocal casts of colonial tombstone designs, new baskets and toy blocks -- but few fine antiques. Gaines McHale Antiques, which opened across the road this summer at 100 Annapolis Street, carries a wide selection of antiques, some nice, like the Hepplewhite mahogany fallfront desk (c. 1800), priced at $3,000. But much of the stock is English, and, unfortunately, many pieces are "skinned" -- dealer vernacular for over-refinished pieces stripped of their patina.

Purists are pleased that Ron Snyder, a longtime name in Annapolis antiques as a restorer and appraiser, recently expanded his warehouse workshop (at 1809 MacGlucken Avenue), and opened up Ron Snyder's Antiques, definitely in the outskirts of town, at 2011 West Street, two blocks northeast of Route 450. Snyder has transformed the old, white two-story house that used to be home to Sam Finkelstein's Antiques into a showplace for Federal to Victorian period furniture. There are tables displaying complete china tablesettings, and Empire chests positioned in bedrooms. You can't miss Snyder's if you're coming from D.C. and take the first Annapolis exit from U.S. 50.

As John Willoughby of the Ark & Dove will tell you while inspecting a crooked-neck duck decoy, if there's a rebirth of antiquing in Annapolis, it'll probably come on the outskirts of town -- not on Maryland Avenue.