"IT'S A SOFT CHRISTMAS," says one Washington area book buyer, and most of his peers concur, though none of them are willing to write off this Yuletide buying season until the last cash register has caroled its last note on Christmas Eve. Just about all of them have noticed, however, that their customers are signaling resistance to the cost of many books. After all, a look at new book prices from a budget shopper's point of view is rather like a dieter contemplating mince pie a la mode: it can be dangerous, even from a distance.

On the other hand, The Book Annex's Jim Tenney flatly calls it "the best book year I've seen in 20 years. Abrams has the best art books I've seen and the university presses without a doubt have the best books I've seen them do." To support this last statement, he cites Isak Dinesen's Letters from Africa and The Age of the Cathedral (both from the University of Chicago), the Arion edition of Moby Dick (University of California) and Yale's The Return to Camelot by Mark Girouard and the new edition of Mary Boykin Chestnut's Civil War diary, edited by C. Vann Woodward. Tenney claims to be selling them all, as well as an amazing 150 copies of Robert Nozick's Philosophical Explanations, which is published by Harvard. Speaking from the Annex's Wisconsin Avenue location, he also reports a brisk market for Henry Mitchell's The Essential Earthman, the new guide Washington Itself and the compendious Presidential Anecdotes. As for reluctant spending: "We don't feel it here in Georgetown."

Out in Potomac, owner Hugo Rizzoli of The Bookstall comments that "beginning last year we began to notice a falling-off in art books. We're selling instead surefire hardcover things, like best sellers, biographies and letters." However, certain children's books count as art books, he thinks, and A Visit to William Blake's Inn, Heidi Holder's Aesop's Fables and both new illustrated versions of Hans Christian Andersen are moving well. At The Cheshire Cat Book Shop, near Chevy Chase Circle, which specializes in children's books, Charlotte Berman, one of the four owners, is watching the weather. A white Christmas is okay with her, but she prefers clear skies beforehand. "You can't ever make up a snow day in terms of sales," although she adds, "we're not as reliant on Christmas sales as some specialty shops."

For The Cheshire Cat, "the Christmas season is proceeding about as we expected. If anything, what we're noticing is that people are buying more paperbacks, for one thing, and also that they're saying to themselves, well, if we have a limited amount of money, then we're going to spend it on books and not on toys or records."

Shirley Cauley, assistant manager at Waldenbooks Springfield Mall branch, has a very different stock and clientele from The Cheshire Cat, but she agrees with Berman about paperback sales. She's noticed a "definite slack- off in hardcover books" and says "the cat trade books and the mass-market titles are what's carrying us." Cauley, who's worked in other retail besides books, finds that "even marked-down art books are just sitting there." Marie Gerheart, working in the Tyson's Corners' Walden, calls their business "about the same as last year so far, but a few days ago things started picking up." She finds that "novelty and humor books are doing well, like the First Family paper dolls, the cube books" and the inevitable cats.

A brand-new store, Calliope, on Connecticut Avenue next to the Uptown Theater, is specializing in literature and modern fiction. They've got no last year to compare this Christmas with, although they were a catalogue operation (and still are--Daedalus, specializing in books "of lasting value") before they were a retail outlet. John Thomson, part-owner and manager, told Book Report that a few of their most in-demand items are Evan Connell's Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge, Jean Strouse's biography of Alice James and the most recently reissued Barbara Pym novel, Prudence and Jane. "We're noticing quite a few of The Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to Great Britain and Ireland going out of here and we think it must be for Christmas presents."

Elizabeth Mueller, the hardcover and paperback buyer for Globe Books on Pennsylvania Avenue, calls sales "definitely lower than last year so far" but she observes that each year the Christmas rush gets later and later. Disappointments, sales-wise, for Mueller include Of Muppets and Men and Alistair Cooke's Masterpieces, while Globe's current biggies are V. S. Naipaul's Among the Believers, Mark Stevens' The Big Eight (an inside look at the biggest U. S. accounting firms) and Yellow Rain ("not a Christmas book, that's for sure"). At Rizzoli in Georgetown, assistant manager Kathleen Bergin also mentions the Naipaul as one of their more requested titles. The Chinese romance, Spring Moon, she says, is "selling wonderfully" and so is The Rise of Political Consultants.

Bergin considers Eyewitness, by London Times editor Harold Evans, a look at world events through the past quarter-century of news photos, one of their most popular gift books; another is The Skyscrapers, by New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger. "Mostly what we're selling," she sums up, "is an awful lot of nonfiction."

Crown's Robert Haft and Tim Ruppel of Kramer Books are two booksellers who firmly believe their customers can afford more by shopping with them, the former because of his controversial discount policies and the latter because his shop specializes in remaindered titles. "Books offer good value," says Haft. "We have thousands of gifts under $10 and that's hard to beat in today's economy." Ruppel echoes that statement: "For $10 you can walk out of here with four books."

Crown, Haft informed Book Report, is selling more dictionaries and thesauruses than ever before, as well as great quantities of Betty Crocker's Microwave Cookbook. The National Museum of American History, Disney Animation and James Michener's USA are three others for which Haft's sheets show high figures. Ruppel's impression, from his vantage point just below Dupont Circle, is that the more expensive art books are starting to move, and it doesn't seem to matter to his customers that they're not this year's crop. "We're doing well with Cosmos, last year's big title from Carl Sagan, and Gordon Parks' To Smile in Autumn is a perennial seller with us." Ruppel estimates that the shop's business doubles and redoubles between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and this year's looks to be no exception.

State of the business aside, the Tiny Tim of the local book world seems to be John Letterman, buyer for the McGraw- Hill bookstore in the National Museum of American History. "You don't have to break dollar records to make it a good Christmas," he says. "We should all get out of the mentality of trying to do more than last year and try instead to do what we do well. Then we can enjoy the season for the happy time of year it is." He might as well have said, "God bless us every one."