WALL STREET CHRISTMAS By Robert Gambee Norton. 272 pp. $49.95

EVERY ONCE in a while, a reviewer is assigned a book which, on first glance, appears entirely unpromising, but which on being opened proves to be an utter delight. Such is Robert Gambee's Wall Street Christmas.

Do not be misled by the "Christmas" of the title, which is merely further evidence that "marketing" expertise needs to be chained in the corner, even at so distinguished a publisher as W.W. Norton & Co. True, several of Gambee's brilliant, atmospheric photographs allude to the Yule season, a tree here, a wreath there, but these adornments simply point up what many of us who know the Street well will feel very poignantly as we turn the pages.

"Poignant" is not a word I use lightly, certainly not in reference to Wall Street, which has a great deal to answer for vis-a`-vis the nation's present circumstances. Still, when I look at the photograph of the entrance to One William Street, the old Lehman Brothers building, now New York headquarters of Banca Commerciale Italiana, a threshold I crossed perhaps 10,000 times in my decade-plus in investment banking, my memory experiences a hitch of sweet regret.

How splendid, how magnificent the Street is without the people! How rich in history, as the widely informative captions corroborate, and may I emphasize that this is as much an engrossing text on Wall Street and its men and institutions as it is a marvelous pictorial survey. In addition to its great arks and ziggurats, Gambee seems to have missed few of Wall Street's more picturesque chinks, corners and coigns, and the reader is led to each through angles of vision which by most definitions known to me deserve the name of artistry. It is all here: the banking houses, clubs, churches, the spires and rotundas, the corner offices and trading bedlams which make up America's Rome, its Nineveh and Tyre.

When I put the book down, I felt an odd sense of refreshment, as if I had been given an antidote to the disgust with the Street's moral midgetry expressed in books like Liar's Poker or Barbarians or Bonfire. I am not sure Wall Street deserves a second chance, although in the fullness of time it will surely be given one, and a third, and a fourth. Somehow, for reasons I cannot quite put words to, Gambee's book makes one understand why. Perhaps because the system these towers were raised to house and commemorate is one of the most resilient ever devised by man, what we see here will not be the Gothic cathedrals of the 23rd or whatever century, disturbed only by the dull click of tourists' footsteps.

I recommend this book without reservation. If you know someone whose head or heart lie south of Canal Street, your problems are solved -- and don't leave yourself off the list. My father spent roughly 40 years on Wall Street. Were he alive, he would find Wall Street Christmas in his stocking, and be mightily pleased to have it. Michael M. Thomas is the author of "Hanover Place," a novel which covers 70 years of Wall Street history.