The place in Brixton to ''shop'' for children is the Granville Arcade.
Around the corner from a pet shop, across the aisle from a butcher's, and very much in earshot of the soul music emanating from a nearby record shop in this heavily West Indian immigrant community's shopping arcade in South London is a freshly painted storefront where children are ''on offer.''
Far from a scheme cooked up by a Dickensian imagination, this ''shop'' is part of a growing trend in Britain to bring the public face to face with the needs of children who are up for adoption. It is designed to help especially those children who may be disabled or emotionally disturbed, or for some other reason have had difficulty finding a family to call their own.
The shop, called Family Finders, is supported by local government money. It is one of seven similar adoption shops, some funded by private donations, which have opened in Britain since 1976.
Family Finders, located in the heart of the predominantly black neighborhood of Brixton, is an effort to counter the long-outmoded stereotype of adoption as a hush-hush activity that rescues an idealized blue-eyed baby and places it in the arms of a childless, white, middle-class couple.
Margaret Mawer, spokeswoman for the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, an organization that coordinates adoption efforts in Britain, said that in the last five years the number of children up for adoption has decreased , making it possible for children who before would not have been considered adoptable to have a greater opportunity of being placed with a family.
Adoption shops, she explained, are proving successful in keeping the public in touch with changing patterns and attitudes surrounding adoption. ''Adoption shops - in addition to radio, television, and newspaper advertising - help reach those who might otherwise not consider adopting a child, particularly one with problems,'' she said.
The idea for adoption shops arose from a general realization in Britain's child-care profession that every child, regardless of the physical or emotional problems he or she might have, deserved the opportunity to be taken out of institutional care and placed with a family.
But if this dream of a family for every homeless child was to come true, a new method of ''selling'' the children to the public had to be found.
Carol Lindsay-Smith, who works for the child-care organization called Dr. Barnardo's, suggested turning the ground floor of the Glasgow Barnardo's office into a place where people could come in off the street to discuss adoption.
And so, risking an affront to public taste and encouraged by the American innovation of showing adoptable children on television, the first shop was opened in Glasgow in 1976.
Other shops have followed. Recently, local government money has funded a Family Finders in Chelmsford, Essex, in eastern England, not far from a Barnardo's adoption shop (called Barnardo's New Families Project) in Colchester, which opened about three years ago. A separately organized adoption shop called Parents for Children is open in Camden Town, North London. And six months ago, the Brixton Family Finders set up in business.
Colin Scott, a social worker who staffs the Brixton shop, says Family Finders in Brixton was established specifically to let the black community know that many black children available for adoption have their hearts set on finding a home with a black family. ''It's not that we're against placing a black child with a white family,'' Mr. Scott said. ''Some black children just prefer the reinforcement of their black identity that a black family could give them.''
With government subsidies available for families who adopt a child, lack of money is no longer necessarily an obstacle to adoption. Family Finders also considers single people and couples who already have children as eligible.
The Brixton shop is open three days a week. A modest 12 by 15 feet, the gray-carpeted room in the Brixton arcade doesn't literally ''stock'' children on its shelves, but most of the children whose faces smile out from wall posters and other advertising material have visited the shop and know how the staff is trying to attract a family on their behalf.
The Family Finders plan encourages children to help advertise themselves. Each child is asked to design a poster that spells out what the child wants in a family and also lists the child's own strong points and weaknesses. A social worker designs a poster for children who are unable to do their own.
An example from the Brixton shop is a poster featuring a smiling photo of a black child:
''My name is Wayne.
I am 6 years old.
I like porridge with brown sugar in (it).
I want a brown family.''
Because assessments of families who want to adopt a child take at least six months, it is too early to gauge the success of the Brixton shop in concrete terms.
Peter Turner, a social worker at the Chelmsford Family Finders, says of their success rate: ''When the shop first opened in February, we had a stampede; predictably, it's quieted down a bit, thank goodness. We must have had 500 or 600 people through our doors since we opened and about 180 formal inquiries.''
Mr. Turner says that at the moment, the Chelmsford office is working seriously with about 20 families with the hope of finding homes for about 15 children among them. Seven children, including several that were disabled, were recently placed with families on a permanent basis.
''If we could find a more discreet and successful way of finding families, I'd like this shop to close,'' Colin Scott of the Brixton shop confesses.
But he says he strongly believes that Family Finders is helping to tap areas of the community that were never reached by traditional techniques and is helping to convince the public how eager social workers are to place homeless children where they belong: in families.