ON WARM SATURDAY EVENINGS IN THE OLD GEORGETOWN, WITH THE FIRST TASTE OF fall in the air, families walked along cobbled, gas-lit streets, past handsome homes of wood and brick, to Wisconsin Avenue, where shopkeepers knew your name and sometimes even figured out which kids belonged to which parents. Just as Georgetown's houses look like extra limbs of one enormous mansion, the shops had a certain sameness; you had a right to expect steady service, a predictable pattern of products, prices and personalities.

The old Georgetown was small-town America as Hollywood knew it: a neighborhood of pleasant churches tucked among Federal mansions, of row houses that served great wealth and simple laborers without favor. Kids lined up on the sidewalk for ice cream cones; the druggist opened Sunday afternoons for steady customers who happened by -- every week.

Wisconsin was an avenue of cocktail dresses, bridal wear and a jeweler who could fix anything. A child's squeal of joy echoed across the streets in the still moments after a streetcar passed -- those were the days. Picture perfect.

But did they ever really exist?

Not in the '30s, when striving laborers bought wares at shops run by Jewish and Italian newcomers, when Virginia rednecks poured into town at night to raise hell. Not in the '40s, when FDR's New Dealers discovered the convenience of city living and white landlords cleared their way by pushing Georgetown's blacks out of houses originally built by whites.

Not in the '60s, not by a long shot. Those were summers of a different kind of love, of brash young merchants who didn't play by the rules of understatement and quiet competition; of street vendors selling beads and bongs while hippies played loud music and yippies attacked police. Wisconsin Avenue became a strip market where bell-bottom pants, Jimi Hendrix albums and Edwardian suits were sandwiched among proper shops of tweeds, bric-a-brac and fine silver. The horrified elite held meetings and passed resolutions condemning "the intrusion which is today threatening the residential character of Georgetown."

The '70s were hardly a return to the simple life. Failing businesses, skyrocketing rents, controversial megadevelopments and rowdy college kids spoiled the pristine image.

And now? Has Georgetown finally been delivered from the cacophony of commerce to its genteel destiny?

Dream on.

Rich national chains pump big money into the storefronts. Longstanding boutiques struggle to survive. On Wisconsin Avenue from M Street to Reservoir Road, there are different shoppers: younger, less patrician; more tourists, more teen-agers, fewer suburbanites, fewer families. Outsiders, contributing to terminal gridlock in the narrow streets, outnumber residents.

While malls, restaurants and night spots increasingly dominate busy M Street, the shops on Wisconsin -- smaller storefronts on a narrower street -- are changing too. More big names -- the Gap, Banana Republic, Esprit. More strange little shops forever holding sales. A carnival atmosphere, the older merchants call it, an arcade, a bazaar.

They are talking, usually in hushed tones, about "the Iranians," their term for a couple of dozen shops run or owned by Iranian immigrants. Longtime residents and merchants have developed sweeping theories maligning the immigrants, blaming them for running clothing and jewelry shops that attract a very "un-Georgetown" crowd.

They are also talking, as Mayor Marion Barry did recently, about jewelry merchants who sell the bulky gold chains fashionable among some young people, including many drug dealers. Jewelers who take large piles of cash from kids are "just as guilty of this drug epidemic as the people who sell drugs," the mayor generalized; he wants police to stand outside those shops to "scare away" druggies.

Georgetown, as seen through the dense row of disparate shops on lower Wisconsin, is in the throes of its latest identity crisis. It is a place of competing ideals, of clashing immigrant and American cultures, even outright hate and bigotry. The life of the avenue looks like shift changes at an industrial plant: suburban shoppers in the afternoon, couples and tourists in the evening, inner-city and college kids late at night and on weekends.

Talk to some merchants, and they'll tell you what Wisconsin Avenue is not: Rodeo Drive, Worth Avenue, Madison Avenue, a Middle Eastern bazaar and the Lower East Side. It's equally easy to find merchants to tell you what Wisconsin is: Rodeo Drive, Worth Avenue, Madison Avenue, a Middle Eastern bazaar and the Lower East Side.

Everyone comes to Georgetown. Everyone wants it his way: the old-line merchants, the fancy new clothing stores, the immigrant merchants, neighborhood residents, tourists, kids who have adopted Georgetown as their private playground. Each group has its dream, its perfect Georgetown.

When those dreams clash, they sometimes provoke ugly tensions as each group points at others for spoiling its ideal. When Georgetown isn't perfect, people blame outsiders, profiteers, the nostalgic locals, and people different from themselves. In the end, everyone is unhappy because Georgetown has not fulfilled all those dreams.

Each group wants its own Georgetown. None can really have it. WHOSE GEORGETOWN IS IT ANYWAY? ow Georgetown has changed. Hints of the old place linger on, at Neam's grocery, where conversations start at the meat counter and carry across the aisles to the checkout clerks; at Weaver hardware, which has sold supplies to generations of enterprising homeowners intent on putting their stamp on houses older than most family Bibles. But the musty little antique shops and narrow dress shops where saleswomen seem shocked to see an unfamiliar face are going, going, gone.

The more things change, the more stories pop up about the Iranians. The talk is not very polite; it is vaguely, and sometimes not so vaguely, riddled with stereotypes. Merchants gossip about some of the Iranians, their clientele, families, business traditions, even eating habits.

Amir Yaroush, who runs the Tiptoe shoe and jewelry store on Wisconsin Avenue, has heard the talk and resents it. The Iranians didn't change Georgetown, the shoppers did. Local residents lost their right to preach about the past when they stopped supporting local shops, Yaroush says.

"These guys who live around here live 50 years ago. They should go around the city and see what's happened. Drive five minutes and see the guys on the corner with drugs. This is what's happening now."

Before the Metro opened to downtown and White Flint Mall, Yaroush says, "we had more white customers. There used to be more quality in Georgetown. The guys who come down here now, lots of them are very rough customers. If I see somebody for the first time, I really get scared. It's a shaky business."

Amir Yaroush has had this storefront in Georgetown for seven years. He opened with a pizzeria. It flopped. Next, a gourmet shop. No go. Then shoes -- okay for a while, but not enough to cover the costs. So he added a jewelry counter to take advantage of the gold medallion and chain craze, popularized by the guys in the rap group Run DMC.

"People blame me because they see these guys with my gold. Where were these people when my business was for the area, when it was a gourmet shop? I went bankrupt. I designed it for them, good food for them -- nothing. They want something free. They complain we bargain. In the whole Georgetown, everybody bargains. Even Hugo Boss -- if you buy three suits, he gives you a price."

Alain Chetrit makes one thing quite clear: There are no deals at Hugo Boss. "We do not talk price in this store," says the owner of the hemisphere's only store devoted to the designer's coolly casual clothes, rumpled suits for the intensely blond.

Chetrit is angry. His street, which could be so right, is under attack. A policeman was shot at his store this spring, killed by a burglar stealing Boss sweatshirts, the kind Sly Stallone wore in "Rocky IV." The residents, he says, don't want any commerce except perhaps a charming little grocery or a dry cleaner. Instead, Wisconsin Avenue has degenerated into a place where salesmen haggle over prices, where garments are sold by price, not by style.

Now, Chetrit frets, the avenue is littered with people who dare to open their doors without a concept. Imagine, no concept!

"The Middle Easterners are just dealers. They call people from the street. These people were carpet dealers. From rugs to fashion is a long way. It's not in their blood.

"The word is out that bargaining can be done on Wisconsin Avenue. Now people walk in and they want a price. They say, 'I'm going to buy three suits. What can you do for me?' We say, 'I can put it in a bag for you.' We've been almost arrogant in this store because we don't want to be identified with that. So we're losing business because we don't accommodate that."

Don't weep for Chetrit. From his office tucked above and behind the sleek Boss shop, he runs a growing, thriving stretch of Wisconsin Avenue, a high-gloss strip of designer shops staffed by lanky, well-tanned folks in clothes you won't see on the Mall or in the malls. Here, Chetrit, armed with a calculator, blueprints and a stack of letters from some of the fanciest names in retailing, plots the development of a new Madison Avenue, another Worth Avenue, a hip shopping street that would capitalize on Georgetown's wealth without succumbing to the nostalgia of the neighborhood elite.

"We went through a period after Georgetown Park opened on M Street when rents were low here compared to K Street, Connecticut Avenue or Bethesda," he says. "We got B-class merchants. People eating pizza or drinking Coke at the counter. Terrible!

"One store, across the street, Moda, he redid the place. Nice new lines. I called and complimented him. And then a few days later, I saw a fat slob with the open shirt drinking a Coke in front of the store. I couldn't believe it. You want to go in these places and say, 'Please, take out the shirts from the plastic bags!' "

Chetrit, a dashing young man with a mane of jet-black hair and a sexy, indeterminate accent, recently bought the building two doors up from his Boss shop. More than 40 potential tenants have called. But he knows what he wants. "An espresso bar or something with a national flavor," he says. The whole neighborhood can have a concept, if people will only cooperate.

"This is the perfect street. It is narrow, there are no commuters going through here, we have small stores, small buildings. We've just had five bad years. What we need is higher rents to bring in better stores." Rents of $25 to $30 a square foot ought to be closer to $60 a square foot, he says.

But higher rents are no panacea. The old Georgetown cinema on Wisconsin is being transformed into a jewelry exchange, an expensive renovation, an appeal to retailers who can afford pricey rents.

"Yes, they are putting money into it," Chetrit says. "But who is attracted to that? The gold-chain guy. And the gold-chain guy is the one who killed the cop in my store. We are not racists. What will bother you as a shopper is not groups of black people. Seeing the blacks walk up and down is part of the game. But shoes in manufacturers' boxes with dust on them! You don't want to see that.

"A mix of high- and low-class people is okay. The golfer buys our suits. The tennis player is buying the sportswear." Chetrit stops, looks up from his ledgers. "And the boxing guy is ripping us off." He chuckles and flips off his calculator.

One flight below, two high school seniors are shopping. This is their list: linen suits, gold necklaces. As the teen-agers step inside Hugo Boss, three salespeople descend on them.

"Boys, this is the only rack for you," a saleswoman tells them, ushering the two to a solitary row of sweatshirts near the front of the store. The salespeople stay near the two customers as they flip through the sweatshirts and move on to fancier threads. One of the two kids decides to try on a pair of shorts. A salesman steps into the dressing room first to check what's inside. Finally, the kids leave.

"Because you're black, they follow you around the store," one of the students says later.

"They think you're going to rob them," his friend says. "They check everything before and after you touch it. Especially the stores that cost a real lot, they do it the most."

Other young customers, who happen to be white, browse unaccompanied. Chetrit says his salespeople keep close tabs on customers who enter in groups. "It's a question of controlling groups." But Chetrit says individual black customers -- an important portion of his clientele --

are not watched especially carefully. "They are treated as anyone else," he says.

If they are followed, even harassed at some stores, why do these students shop there?

"They have good stuff," one says. "I buy a lot there. They should treat you right, but even if you buy a lot of stuff, they treat you like they don't even know you."

Butch Brown, a salesman at Moss Brown & Co., an athletic clothing outlet across the street, says the merchants' attitude is understandable. "A lot of the money that comes through {Georgetown} is drug money, kids with big wads of hundreds. They get mad because salespeople follow them around. What do you expect us to do?

"The majority of the shoppers we have around here are young black kids who spend every buck they get as soon as they get it. I wish they would at least pump it back into our {black} community instead of putting it into the white community. Instead, they're here."

In two hours this afternoon, the two high school seniors browse through six stores, stopping at length to check out the window display at Prince and Princess -- a gold medallion made from a Mercedes hood ornament and a piece three inches in diameter that says, entirely in gold, "Sittin' On Top of the World."

The two shoppers have found a friend on Wisconsin -- Yaroush and his jewelry at Tiptoe. They visit him often.

"He treats you nice," one student says. "They give you a deal."

At Tiptoe, Yaroush greets them with a smile, shows them necklaces and addresses them as "sir." ESPRIT DE GEORGETOWN: MARKET OF THE FUTURE uses groan toward M Street, spitting black clouds in the path of Katie Maurer and friends. They're fresh out of high school, in for the afternoon from Fairfax, here for a few hours of fun before heading back to the 'burbs for evening jobs serving up popcorn at the movies. Starting with lunch at the American Cafe, finishing with a cone at Thomas Sweet's, they are here to check out the avenue.

Young, affluent, TV-suckled, Katie and her three friends duck into the Gap and Banana Republic, chain outlets that are among the nation's highest grossing clothing shops. Along with the affluent tourists, families and yuppies -- of all races -- who still make up most of Georgetown's shoppers, Katie and friends are the kind of shoppers who help Chetrit's boutique rake in three times the receipts that satisfy many stores.

Katie and friends -- and plenty of kids like them, black and white, from the city and the suburbs -- routinely drop a quick couple hundred at their favorite stores. They carry their take in bags from all the hottest names on the avenue, names like Benetton and Britches Great Outdoors.

Every weekend, and even on occasional weekdays, they park at Georgetown Park and hit the stores. They are the lure that has attracted interest in Georgetown from hot national stores such as Charles Jourdan and Ralph Lauren, stores aiming for folks who pride themselves on staying away from the malls.

They are dream customers for Esprit, the slick-image California clothier that plunked down $7 million -- almost seven times as much as anyone had ever paid -- for a sliver of Wisconsin Avenue. For its very first company-owned store on the East Coast, Esprit selected a former parking lot and opened a striking, post-modern, three-story, 15,000-square-foot storefront on the busy block between M and Prospect streets. For this, it was happy to pay a figure wildly out of line with other real estate sales. Happy, because Esprit knows about all those Katies, the 18- to-26-year-olds who make up its target audience.

"The tourist element, the college element and the yuppie element are there for us, waiting," says Gregory Turpan, an Esprit executive who picked the location. "We are certainly not talking about any carriage trade. People really like to be on real streets with real stores now. Look at Newberry Street in Boston or Madison Avenue in New York. People are mall-resistant now on the upwardly mobile side. So this wasn't a lot of money to pay, especially when you compare it to what we would have to pay in rent over time."

You'd think a company that invested that much money into a place would have done all kinds of B-school research. You'd be wrong. Esprit did no studies, hired no consultants.

"We just knew," Turpan says. "Mediocrity at high rents is a formula for failure. If the Iranian stores don't offer very special service at these rents -- well, we're getting to the point where it's full service or definite discounter. Only the extremes will survive."

Katie and friends agree. They would never set foot in those charming little places along the avenue, tasteful jewelry boutiques, fine old dress shops.

"Yuck," Katie says.

That's how it went for the St. Aubin de Paris boutique and Jac King's jewelry shop. They closed this summer after 28 and 22 years, respectively, two of at least eight pieces of the old Georgetown that died this year for lack of business.

Jac King used to wear a coat and tie to his store every day. One day three years ago, he stopped. Georgetown was no longer that kind of place. "I realized my customers didn't care," he says. THE BUSIEST LITTLE JEWELRY SHOP IN GEORGETOWN riday is the big day at Amir Yaroush's Tiptoe store. All afternoon, kids are in and out -- quick, easy transactions. Yaroush does a lot of cash business. Thus the guard, a strapping, uniformed fellow who doubles as a salesman.

There aren't many conversations at Tiptoe. Two kids walk in, not even glancing at the few dozen shoes on display in the back. Yaroush knows what they want, the kids say; he asks no questions. He makes good deals.

Kenny, a 15-year-old wearing a T-shirt that shouts his name, puts his arm around his girlfriend and catches Yaroush's eye: "Let me see some ropes." Yaroush takes a thick, 12-inch-long chain out from under the counter and hooks it around the teen's neck.

"Longer," Kenny says.

Yaroush silently replaces the goods under glass and uses two hands to pull out a thick, twisted length of gold. Delicacy is not at a premium here. The kid checks the new chain in the mirror, reaches into the front pocket of his tennis shorts and extracts a folded wad of bills about two inches thick.

He peels off six of his crisp hundreds, drops them on the counter and wheels. The pair is out the door long before Yaroush has reached his cash register. No discussion, no receipts.

It goes on like this all day. Two boys, age 16 and 18, come in and trade the chains they are wearing for more ornate models. Yaroush computes the difference in weight and says, "Two." Two fresh hundreds drop on the counter, and the kids are gone, staying long enough only to grab a business card, a piece of paper with AMIR on one side and an actual- size replica of half a $50 bill on the other.

The gold chains are, in a way, a return to his roots. In Iran, Yaroush's father was in the jewelry business for 50 years. His cousins are big gold importers in this country. This summer, Yaroush remodeled, moving the shoes farther back, adding new jewelry counters up front. But gold is not forever. Almost every store within half a block of Tiptoe has begun to sell chains, and Yaroush is worried.

"They just try to make business bad for me," he says of the competition, many of whom are his cousins, refugees from the ayatollah's revolution. Pierre Mizrahi -- Yaroush's cousin -- runs Prince and Princess ("20%-50% Off!"), right across the street. Members of the Mizrahi clan sell, run the cash register, hang out on the staircase by the front door. The roomy store sells shoes, women's clothes and -- as of a few months ago -- gold.

"Sure, Tiptoe started it," Mizrahi says. "The others followed. That's how it works. Look, four or five years ago, we had shoppers in their thirties and forties. Now it's twenties to thirties. The young people are not afraid of the changes -- the crowds and the blacks -- but the older ones are. So we have to change the merchandise. The younger, they're looking for something fast -- color, style. They don't care about the quality." THE GEORGETOWN-IS-GOING-TO-HELL THEORY atie and her crew aren't rushing to patronize stores that don't have the big names they see in magazines. The young suburbanites might stop in some smaller stores to check out the wares, but they usually step out empty-handed. Not that the goods are trashy. Just something about those places. "Weird," Katie says. Katie is a wo-man of few words. But her friends know what she means. "Too weird," one says. "They're not like regular stores."

What these shoppers see as irregular are salesmen at a few stores standing in doorways, hassling women, calling out to passersby about good deals.

And deals that linger for months. Signs along Wisconsin shout "50%-70% Off" (La Strega) and "Spring Sale! 20%-40% Off!" (Maison de Fay, in July). These folks do not seek the carriage trade.

David Roffman, publisher of The Georgetowner biweekly, says Wisconsin's landlords are trapped. They want to rent to fancy boutiques and national chains, but "they put a place up for rent, and the only calls they get are from Iranians. There are three or four groups of Iranians and they're always calling me and ratting on each other. They're impossible; you can't work with them."

The immigrants' business style has compounded damage done to Wisconsin Avenue when Georgetown Park opened on M Street, says Roffman, who loves Georgetown so much he drives a riding vacuum cleaner around the streets. "Some of the better shops moved into the mall, and the focus shifted from Wisconsin to M Street and below. Now the avenue is trashed, totally destroyed."

"We've lost our neighborhood shopping area," says William Cochran, a Georgetown resident and architect of the Gap and Banana Republic stores. "The paint store became Domino's Pizza. If you live here, it burns you up to go out to Tysons Corner just to get plain stuff at Woolworth's. And at the same time we're getting the big national chain stores, merchants open their doors with a clearance sale."

Sometimes it seems there are several separate Wisconsin Avenues. Chetrit says he has "zero" contact with Iranian merchants. Jacob Soleiman, the avenue's premier Iranian landlord, doesn't belong to Georgetown's merchants association. Richard Hindin, president of Britches and head of the merchants group, doesn't recognize the names of three major Iranian businessmen. "Never heard those names before," he says.

Some of the griping about Iranians stems from reports of improper business practices at certain stores. Two years ago, three Iranian merchants were placed on probation for abusing customers' credit card numbers. No other stores were implicated in the incident. And three former employes of two Georgetown shops say they were paid in cash, with no taxes withheld. The shopkeepers say they do business by the book.

Many Iranian shopkeepers say no one likes them because they are different and aggressive, because they don't run pretty little shops that slowly, cheerfully go down the tubes.

There are many possible explanations for Georgetown's changing face. Higher property assessments make it difficult for low-volume stores appealing to neighborhood residents to survive. And new office buildings near the waterfront have brought a younger class of shoppers hungry for more sophisticated shops and trendy restaurants.

"Georgetown was precious and unique, a real village feeling," Cochran says. "In any other jurisdiction in the United States, you'd find a historic district being treated with much more care. It's not the pride and joy of this city's government. Where can you shop in Washington? You want used furniture, go to Adams-Morgan. You want anything else, there's only Georgetown. F Street, you can get a wig. Next stop, Tysons." THE NEXT GEORGETOWN: A DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH ran was not a friendly place for a Jew, even before the shah fell. Jacob Soleiman, son of a merchant, grew up with America in his plans. He wanted a family, money and freedom. In Iran, he could expect a family and maybe money. In America, he figured, he could earn freedom and money; a family might come later.

He came over in 1968, settled in Washington, landed a job busing tables at the Washington Hotel. He drove a Good Humor truck while he went to school, parked cars at a lot in Crystal City. Soleiman worked 18 hours a day. No social life, no wife.

He had one goal: to save enough money to open the store of his American dream, in the place that meant America to him -- Georgetown. In his first days in the city, he wandered the streets and discovered a neighborhood that seemed to glow with class and grace. It was America the way he had always envisioned it. In all the United States, he told himself, there is only one Georgetown.

It took a few years, but Soleiman saved about $4,000, enough to move to Clarksburg, W.Va., to start an oriental rug store. Less than two years later, he was able to move the store to M Street. New profits helped buy another store, then another, and soon Soleiman was a major Wisconsin Avenue landlord.

These days, Soleiman's first clothing store, L'Armoire, is struggling, a dimly lighted place offering men's threads for almost any season. The basement is a women's shoe store frozen in time, tucked beneath the men's shop, unannounced to passersby. At L'Armoire, you can find expensive Italian suits, ties that span the decade in styles, and old shoes, lying on the floor, yours for $1.

Still earnest and hard-working, Soleiman is a family man now. His face shows the wear of decades of ridiculous hours. Wearily, he tells about dealing with competitors who, hearing of his latest line, hustle to feature it on their racks. He rails against permanent SALE! signs here and there on the avenue, against merchants who refuse to put prices on items.

He has heard the slurs against his countrymen and the rumor about how the Georgetown Iranians are from one big, rich family. He knows there is some truth to that rumor. Are the merchants their brothers' keepers? Maybe not, but they are their brothers.

The Soleiman brothers, for example, were partners in four Georgetown clothing stores in 1974. Today, they barely speak. Their stores compete. Jacob's brother David won't talk about it.

On the next block north, another family -- brothers, a sister and cousins, the Mizrahis -- run several stores, Prince and Princess, the Shoe Gallery, Ladies and Gentlemen. There, too, relations are strained. The Iranians of Georgetown, condemned, even dismissed as aliens by old-timers, are a fractious lot.

Family ties aside, Jacob Soleiman can get as livid as the stuffiest Georgetown matron about how some new merchants drag down the tone of the avenue. He listens to fellow merchant Ziad Kabbani's description of some shopkeepers: "They want to sell everything -- whatever makes money. This is the bazaar mentality. They want to make 300 percent use of 100 percent of a store."

"Yes," Soleiman says. "This is my family."

Downstairs in his store, at a glass desk surrounded by piles of unsold shoes and racks of leather jackets, Soleiman dreams of a new Georgetown, revived not by bluebloods who pine for the past, but by immigrants willing to fight for every penny. So far, his countrymen have disappointed him.

"The residents are 100 percent right. Something has to be done. I tried to sit down with all the Iranians who came after the shah left -- they were all family of my brother's wife, and they came here crying they had no jobs. So I help them and I told them, 'Here is not Iran.' Just put the price on your merchandise, and let people decide. They said okay, and a couple of days later, it was the same thing -- the haggling, no prices on the clothes.

"They are like gypsies, they work downstairs and live upstairs. They have no overhead. They work 15, 16 hours a day, every day, no vacations, no holidays for five years."

Maybe he is being too harsh. "Okay," he says. "Sometimes -- maybe -- they'll take Yom Kippur."

All this from the man whose own store window shouts "45-50% OFF!," whose own salesman offers customers "a special deal, just for you," calling after a Metrobus driver who didn't like the prices, "How much you want to pay? What is reasonable for you?"

Soleiman sighs. What can he do? He is trying, he says, his strained voice showing how hard, trying to make it all better. Once again, he has a plan.

Jacob Soleiman's new Georgetown is here, opposite his clothing shop. It is the old Georgetown theater, where Bob Guccione's "Caligula" played year after raunchy year, infuriating Soleiman. The seats are all gone now, the floor leveled, the projection booth removed. The shell has been converted into what Soleiman promises will be Washington's first New York-style jewelry exchange, 52 booths offering diamonds and fine stones on two levels of bright lights and gushing fountains. Plenty of marble, lots of mirrors.

This fall, Soleiman wants to bring back the glamour, the Georgetown he gawked at when he arrived in America. He remembers limousines waiting in front of the stores, teeming crowds day and night. Customers dropped $1,500, $2,000 on an armful of suits. Now, guys come in with $50, or bargain hunters want to spend $100 on a $500 suit. Business is down 90 percent in the past couple of years, he says, and Jacob Soleiman is ready to do something about it.

"We have to keep it classy. I am trying to bring Elizabeth Taylor for the opening. I am trying to close off the avenue, have a big gala opening, to bring the avenue alive. I don't have problems leasing the place. I have problems finding the right people. All the Iranians and Arabs come to me, and I say, 'You have to wait in line.' I have 600 names, maybe five of them I like.

"This will be only stones, pearls -- good stuff. In my place, there will be no gold ropes. I don't want to go for the fast money. I want something classic." RX: GOLD e is 18 and carries a beeper in his sweat-pants pocket. He's out shopping on Wisconsin, checking out the ladies, loudly gracing the avenue with his opinions. He likes Georgetown because "you get a lot of stuff here they don't have in the malls. They're expensive here, but you can talk 'em down."

The teen-ager's favorite place in Georgetown is the front counter at the Georgetown Pharmacy -- what used to be Doc Dalinsky's drugstore.

"This bracelet here is $575 in the mall, and I talked 'em down to $300 at the drugstore," he says. "They'll come down real fast in price. They'll deal with you here."

Harry (Doc) Dalinsky hasn't been back in three years, but at first glance, the Georgetown Pharmacy is still Doc's drugstore. The same old green-and-white sign hangs over the corner storefront, and when you first walk in, the crammed old place looks like the same oasis it always was, safe from the frenzied trendiness, redolent with the sweet smells of chocolates, perfumes and patent medicines.

The pharmacy was Doc Dalinsky's for 48 years. He filled prescriptions and spelled the soda jerk and made friends with the famous. "It was a pleasure to be there," he says. "I knew mostly every one of my customers. We had food, parties on Sundays when we were closed, did that for 10 years. The day I cut it out, they all came, Buchwald, the whole crowd. Then I decided to get out. I've been married 48 years, and I wanted to see what my wife looked like."

Loyal customers hunted around for someone who would continue Doc's business. They found Soleiman.

"I did Doc a favor," Soleiman says. "He was a good friend of mine. We went out with Buchwald, you know, the funny guy, and he said, 'Let Doc go and relax.' "

Soleiman's wife's nephew arrived from Iran around that time and needed something to do. He had money; Jacob had money and connections. Together, they bought the drugstore.

Doc was ready to leave, but he wanted assurances. The buyer would have to keep a pharmacist on staff. Soleiman promised he would. Don't worry, he said, everybody loves Doc's. We won't change the place.

Soleiman was good to his word. The pharmacy fills prescriptions, even has a couple of the old staff around.

"I'm not making much money," Soleiman says. "But sometimes you do for money; sometimes, when you have money, you -- well, his wife thanks me."

Doc does not thank Soleiman. Doc doesn't even want to see the old place. Soleiman's relatives who run the shop cleared out the front counter and filled it with gold chains, the same stuff Soleiman criticizes others for selling.

Soleiman is apologetic, sort of. "We're paying almost $5,000 a month rent, and we're selling cigarettes, making 10 cents a pack. So you have to do something for a little money. So we put a little bit of gold in there."

Dalinsky feels betrayed. "The whole business I had is gone. Like the people with all those nice shops. Only about two of them are left. All the old merchants left. These people were coming in. It was a nice neighborhood, and now it's changed, like a lot of things. All changed -- completely for the worse. It's all a slop shop now." THE MORE THINGS CHANGE . . . hese days, Sam Levy dresses like a Fort Lauderdale retiree. White shoes, white pants, white hair. But he still barks like the mogul he is, still dishes out the blunt opinions of a wise old shopkeeper. His men's shop, David Richard, catered at first to neighborhood laborers, then followed the area's ascent to wealth. The shop's clientele had evolved, with its surroundings, from truck drivers to Supreme Court justices in less than 30 years.

After 56 years, Sam Levy and Georgetown have gotten very good at doing business together. Levy is a wealthy man today. Despite recent heart surgery, he climbs the narrow stairs every morning to the Wisconsin Avenue offices from which he and longtime partner John Snyder rule over more than 40 Georgetown commercial properties. The dominant real estate force on the avenue, Levy and Snyder have held onto their Georgetown; they haven't sold a property in 30 years.

Richard Levy didn't want to be like his father. He left Georgetown 17 years ago to make his mark in New York. He became an arts administrator, helped create the Big Apple Circus, brought cultural programs into city public schools. He worked in the Flatiron Building and lived in a gentrifying part of Brooklyn. Last year, at age 44, with his father getting a little tired and John Snyder quite ill, Richard came home.

"The question was whether to cash out," he says. "Sam was talking about how Georgetown was going to hell, with the Middle East bazaar atmosphere, enhanced by the inner city's discovery of Georgetown as a place to hang out. The tension between them and the Virginia military coming in to get drunk, well, when the cops came in with their forces a couple of years ago, I thought the whole thing would blow up. But I looked around and saw people still paying a million dollars for a house, then putting another million into fixing it up."

Sam had invited his son back to town because he was perplexed, worried even, by Georgetown's dramatic new popularity among young black shoppers who, Sam says, scare away the older family trade -- black and white.

Fifteen years ago, a similar issue split Georgetown's merchants. In the early '70s, Saturdays brought more than 50 vendors to Wisconsin Avenue sidewalks, hawking belts and beads, hash pipes and cigarette papers, cactus plants and greeting cards. Some merchants tried to limit vending. They found themselves tagged racists; the vendors association said white merchants wanted them out because their customers were black.

It wasn't true, says Richard Hindin of Britches -- then as now president of Georgetown's merchants association. Shopkeepers then had no desire to sour the avenue's vital street life. Nor do they today. It's just that today's situation is more severe, merchants say. It's time to "clean up the avenue," Hindin says. "It's just that with such a diverse cross-section of types, we've had to beef up police protection. If we don't monitor it, crime could get out of control."

Richard Levy is unafraid. "Why do these kids want to come here? The diversity to me is exciting. Sure, there are problems. Because this is a consumer society, you have people with very little income who want the same things as the upper-income people want. Georgetown can handle a fair amount of that. Things are not out of hand."

Richard is staying; the Levys are not cashing out. Georgetown is doing well, and it can do better, much better, if it is controlled. "The question is, can you manage Georgetown as you would a shopping center?" Richard asks. "Make it a coherent shopping district, manage who comes in, what kind of businesses there are?"

Like a mall, but not quite. It's hard not to admire the control mall managers have over their domains, but Levy believes people come to Georgetown expressly because it's not a mall. "Malls are for people who like less excitement, less variety, a more protected feeling. People come here just for that diversity, that urban feeling. I do not include in that diversity the sleaze of the worst of the Middle Eastern shops. In a managed shopping area, you would not have room for that. That new jewelry center, it's a bazaar. You can mean to do very well. But a place like that can be the anchor that drowns you."

Sam has seen this before, and he is not so sure. As each new immigrant group arrives, the old-timers forget about the previous group and its outrages. "Give them time," Sam says. "They'll have good shops."

The Levys rent two storefronts to Iranian merchants. "You try to teach them," Richard says. "Or you just don't allow them. They're aliens, and they stick together, like the Jews used to, like any new group does."

The Levys' blueprint -- control the avenue -- joins a long list of fixes for Georgetown. Wisconsin can be a proper avenue of high-glitz boutiques and Eurocafe's and pretty little trees, Chetrit says. It can be an orderly mix of neighborhood services and fine shops, Roffman says.

Pretty pictures, imposed on a place with a tradition of turbulence. Georgetown is an exposed archeological dig, a place of many surfaces, each poking its way to the surface. The Iranians came, and they may yet go. Merchants say so. The Iranians say so. If the ayatollah fell, and the shah's family returned to rule, large chunks of Wisconsin Avenue might empty overnight, creating another vacuum, another chance for outsiders to fill up the avenue, add some spice, violate the rules, outrage the residents. Just like old times in the gentle village of Georgetown. ::