Nancy Lee Barton sat on a stool behind the cash register in her Wheaton bookstore, a volume of Shakespeare open on her lap.

Poet, painter and self-described "private person," Barton, 49, runs Cadmus Adult Books - one of Montgomery County's two adult bookstores - with a woman she's known since her college days.

Together, the women say, they have elevated what many consider a sleazy kind of business to the level of a literary salon, worthy of "the better class of Montgomery County."

Looking through Cadmus' front window, a passer-by would see only a display of T-shirts with inocuous iron-on insignias, ordinary novelty store merchandise. Inside, in the front half of the store, a jar filled with big round chocolate chip cookies sits on the counter alongside a basket of peanut butter crackers. On the shelves are handmade yarn dolls, ceramic bowls, vases and cups and wooden knicknacks.

But through swinging doors marked "Erotikon Club - Members Only" is the store's back room, where there is displayed the same kind of pornographic books, magazines and sexual paraphernalia as those solid along 14th Street NW in downtown Washington and on "The Block" in Baltimore. There are explicit pictures of sexual acts, vibrators on sale for $15.95, "fruit-flavored" lubricants, "Touching Oil" and "Orgy Butter."

Proudly, Nancy Lee Barton and her partner, 55-year-old Geraldine Lavagnino, proclaim that their store is a place where "ladies" are welcome and where customers come as much for the conversation and the "lonely hearts club" atmosphere as for the adult books.

"No dirty old man in a raincoat has yet to come in here," says Barton, an articulate, matronly woman with long black hair combed and gathered at her neck. "And I want to stress this point, our women customers are NOT prostitutes . . . Why, a prostitute would be bored stiff with this stuff."

"We get a cross-section of the better class of Montgomery County." Lavagnino added, "military men up to full colonel, real estate agents, (off-duty) police officers, secretaries, psychiatrists - I've kept a list."

There are more than 30 adult bookstores in Washington, about eight in Prince George's and about 10 in the Northern Virginia suburbs. Many suburban stores are like Cadmus, located in shopping centers.

But unlike Cadmus, the other stores generally fit the classic mode for adult bookstores: opaquely painted black and red windows framed in yellow and red flashing lights, with the neon promise of erotic adventure to lure customers inside.

Many of the other stores offer coin-operated peep shows that permit viewers to watch two-and three-minute segments of an adult movie for 25 cents. The films are usually an hour long, requiring $5 to $7 to watch the entire reel, and are usually located in darkened booths toward the rear of the stores.

Cadmus has no coin-operated machines, no dark booths - only "aesthetic," "beautifully photographed" erotic publications for the intellectuals with a taste for pornographic literature, according to the owners.

Last April, however, a Montgomery Circuit Court judge ruled that 21 films and magazines on sale at Cadmus were obscene and banned the store's owners from selling the film "Deep Throat" and such publications as "Animal 15." "Teen Masturbators," "Incest Girl" and "Shackled Love."

But Cadmus is somewhat revolutionary for such stores in its sale of legitimate art books (featuring nude portraits of course) and such titles as "The Presidential Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography" and "The XYZ of Love," which can be purchased in almost any bookshop.

In another first, the two women are planning to organize a private club for their clientel (membership $3) which will offer a lecture series, seminars and roundtable discussions on such topics as "Masturbation Is Respectability," "The Lesbian Reality," and "Sexuality in the Retirement Years."

The women also are planning to organize a 24-hour hotline service for personal problems, manned by volunteers from among the store's clientele. The hotline idea originated, according to Barton, because so many of Cadmus' customers come to her and Lavagnino for help with their personal problems.

"We had a man come in the other day who knew about a pregnant 16-year-old girl. Her parents had just turned her out and he was very concerned that the girl didn't have a place to stay. So we helped find a place for her," Barton said.

There are plans also for a reference library of books on sexuality for researchers to use.

"This is the first club of its kind in the area . . . It's possibilities are infinite," Barton said.

The impetus to start Cadmus, which is named after a Greek mythological character who is said to have founded Thebes, actually came from Lavagnino, who envisioned a store on the order of the "erotic boutiques" she said had seen in Copenhagen and Berlin.

"You know, the kind with the carpets, the lovely decorations, the beautifully dressed sales people," said Lavagnino who, with her hair fluffed back into a neat bun, her wire-rimmed glasses and her flawless diction, appears more suited to a life of a high school English teacher.

What she and her partner actually have is a tiny storefront sandwiched between a shoe store and a uniform shop on a commercial strip of Georgia Avenue in Wheaton.

In 1974, Barton already had the lease on the Georgia Avenue store and was operating an antique and arts and crafts shop there. "It became obvious to me that this is not the location for that kind of business," Barton said.

When she decided to try to lease out her store, she got two offers, both from people who wanted to open an adult bookstore there.

"I began to see there was clearly a market for this type of store here, but I was a bit backward about starting one. My partner then took me into town to look at some bookstores there."

"She said they like a subway latrine, "interjected Lavagnino, who calls her partner "Miss Barton" in front of strangers.

"But then I said, why does it have to be that way," Barton explained. "An adult bookstore can be made into a very aesthetic place."

She opened Cadmus in January, 1976.

About 25 per cent of Cadmus' customers are women, according to Barton. "I think women feel at ease in our store because it's run by women . . . and we all know what it's like" said Barton, smiling.

One customer, Lavagnino said, that she is particularly fond of is a 60-year-old woman who comes on to buy magazines. "She said she wishes such things were available in her youth and that it's fitting and proper and about time that people were open about a natural human function like sex." Lavagnino said.

Barton, who had her own grocery business before she leased the Wheaton store, said she attended school sporadically in her youth until she quit school at 15 "because frankly I was bored . . . but I was a good scholar."

She was accepted into the University of New Mexico when she was in her 20s, studied some psychology, then switched to anthropology. Later she won a full scholarship to Bennington College in Vermont where she studied painting.

Lavagnino started out as a premedical student at George Washington University, then transferred to the University of New Mexico, where she met and became friends with Barton.

But Lavagnino left school to travel around Europe and the United on a motorcycle, an activity she said she still enjoys.

She drives a BMW to and from work.

Besides travel, Lavagnino's great passion in life is astronomy and she's taken several trips throughout the world to watch eclipses.

The two women are neighbors now in Sandy Spring, sharing, according to Barton, "books and art galleries." And of course, the business.

In addition to adult bookstores, there are newstands in the county that sell pornographic books and magazines, according to police.

"These are legitimate newstands, but they offer materials that I believe would be ruled obscene if we got them into court," said Montgomery County vice officer Fred Whalen.

Andrew Sonner, state's attorney for Montgomery County, said prosecutors often hesitate to take action against adult bookstores because "the likelihood of success (in court) is so small." He said it is often difficult to locate the real owners of the bookstores, who generally hide behind corporate names and front men.

In addition, community standards on obscenity are more liberal nowadays and juries are more tolerant of pornography, attorneys say.

"We live in Montgomery County ards." Sonner said "We're not like ards." Sommer said. "We're not like Cincinnati where they could go after Hustler," Sonner said.