Bobby Haft believes if books cost less people will buy 'em by the bag. $1By the barrel. By the boxcar.

"Look at that woman," he whispers, watching a customer browse through his Crown Books store in McLean. The woman is balancing a stack of books in both arms. They come up to her elbows."Masada." "Hints from Heloise." "The Official Preppy Handbook." She spots another title on the shelf, reaches out with one arm and hisses under her breath as her pile of paperbacks begins to tumble onto the rust-colored industrial carpet.

"That," says Bobby Haft, "is the key to Crown."

Four years ago, Robert M. Haft -- a 24-year-old Harvard Business School graduate and son of discount Dart Drug czar Herbert H. Haft -- opened his first cut-rate bookstore in Rockville. Since then, Crown has become the largest discount book retailer in the country, with 23 Washington area stores (mostly in suburban shopping centers) and 13 outlets in Los Angeles. The Loehmann's of literature.

It's breakfast at Clyde's -- an American bar -- with an American success story, the Crown Prince of books, the boy wonder of best sellers. He talks fast, and fidgets in his chair. His eyes are dark brown saucers, his face is finely chiseled, his chin is dimpled. He wears shaggy brown hair, corduroy Calvins and penny loafers without the pennies. If they were casting the movie, Al Pacino might play him. He is small (5-4) and wiry. A bantamweight. But he didn't fight his way up, didn't claw his way to the top. His hands are too soft, too pale.

"I've had, in a sense, a charmed life."

He is often described as a shrewd and savvy entrepreneur. He is single, drives a silver Mercedes convertible with cherry-red leather interior, belongs to Pisces, dines at Tiberio, jogs near his Northwest Washington townhouse, shops at Britches, recently took off for a two-week vacation in the Philippines and can often be found at 3 a.m. at the Tastee Diner in Bethesda. Not your average, dust-covered, bespectacled book vendor.

He lists himself in the phone book as Robert Crown Haft. No, he says, it's not his middle name. He did it to avoid confusion with another Robert Haft in the phone book. Before that, he listed himself as Robert Dart Haft.

How did he come by the name? "Crown had the right sound," he says, sipping his orange juice. "We thought of 'Hallmark' or 'Bookmark' or 'Book Corner,' but a lot of people seemed to identify with Crown," he says. "In fact, when we did our [original research] survey, 15 percent of the people we polled said they had already shopped there "before!"

Crown discounts New York Times best sellers by 35 percent, hardbacks by 20 percent, best-selling paperbacks by 25 percent. Every day. And if you paid full price somewhere else, Crown's advertisements scream, don't blame Bobby Haft.

"I'm providing a service to the community," he says. "If books cost less, people will buy more. As a consumer, I was made as hell paying full price for a book," Haft says.

Now, area booksellers are mad as hell. They say that because Crown is a wholly owned subsidiary of Dart Drug, Haft pays little rent on his properties, gets discount advertising rates, buys the books at a greater discount because he can afford to buy in volume. They say his ads are offensive. They complain that he promotes dollar figures -- not books -- and that it makes publishers and other bookstore owners sound like rip-off artists for charging suggested retail prices. They say they can't compete. Above all, they say, Bobby Haft is ruining their image.

"He's the black dog of the book business," says Mary Jane Barnett, book buyer for Discount Records and Books. "His stores are like supermarkets. Most book people are in the business because they love books. I don't think Mr. Haft loves books. I don't think he knows books."

"My background," he says, "is not books."

"The literati of Washington do not frequent Crown," sniffs Jim Tenney, buyer for The Book Annex.

Bobby Haft shrugs off the criticism, attributing it to jealously. "I don't take it personally," he says. "Anyone my age running a business like this would be hated.I don't consider it unusual."

"He's very gutsy, very nervy," says Stuart Applebaum of Bantam Books. "I have to respect him because he seems to be reaching out for people to go into his bookstores. He has a two-fisted approach. And he doesn't mind riling sensitive egos to get the best deal for his stores."

One executive of a large book distributing firm says Haft is "not the most beloved guy around. He's aggressive and full of himself. And he's got a lot going for him -- mostly his father."

The executive also echoed the complaints of many book buyers who say Crown's selection is limited to popular, brisk-selling titles. For example, the executive says, "I'll bet you $9 million he doesn't have 'The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats,' a book that any well-stocked bookstore should carry."

A survey of 10 Washington area Crown stores turned up one copy of the book; a similar survey of 10 independent booksellers turned up the same number.

All that doesn't faze the king of Crown.

"Is he right?" Haft says, biting into his scrambled eggs. "Is that a book everybody wants? I don't think so."

Suddenly, he leans over to the next table. Doing his best imitation of a slick game-show emcee, he says, "Excuse me, she's doing a cover story for Time magazine and we'd like to know what books you're currently reading."

The "contestants," Morrey and Peggy Levinson, an elderly couple from Columbus, Ohio, reel off the titles: "Century," "Portraits," "Brain," "Kane & Abel." No W. B. Yeats. Blooooop.

"Do books cost too much?" Haft asks.

"Yes," says Peggy Levinson.

"Would you buy more books if they cost less?" Haft urges, excited now.

"Yes, yes," Morrey Levinson nods. Son of Dart Drug

Robert M. Haft was born in 1952 -- the second of three children -- and grew up in Chevy Chase. His father, Herbert Haft, was a pharmacist who owned a drugstore on the corner of 18th Street and Columbia Road. His mother was a cosmetician.

"Their office was above the store," he says. "That's where I spent my childhood."

The older Haft had opened the discount drugstore in 1954. Slowly but surely, he incurred the wrath of other drugstores and drug companies, one of whom threatened to cut off Haft's supply if he didn't raise his prices. In 1957, officials of Parke Davis & Co., one of the nation's largest drug firms, were charged with violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act by conspiring to fix the price of drugs. Herbert Haft testified against the drug firm. The case went to the Supreme Court. Parke Davis lost.

"I really admire my father," says Bobby Haft. "He was one of the first discounters in the country."

The Dart Drug empire blossomed out to the suburbs, where the stores became a fixture in nearly every shopping center. Last count was 76. Bobby Haft worked for his father during summer vacations, taking stock, learning the retail business, watching and waiting.

He attended Bullis, a private boy's school in Potomac, where his biggest disappointment was not making the junior high school basketball team. He was 4-foot-10. "I was crushed," he says."I always wanted to be the guy who stuffed the ball in the hoop."

Instead, he tried out for soccer. He worked hard at it, and his enthusiasm and energy paid off. He became captain of the team.

He went off to the University of Pennsylvania, then attacked graduate school at Harvard.

"He was not remarkable at business school," says classmate David Bradley, who now heads a Washington research firm. "You couldn't say he was the most intelligent student, although he may have been the best-read."

Haft would stay up until 3 a.m., Bradley says, reading popular novels, art books, adventure books, anything he could get his hands on. "I wouldn't call Bobby scholarly," Bradley says. "He's curious."

The two students climbed up to the roof of the business school library one night before graduation. Below, the lights of Boston flickered as the two men talked about their futures. "It was the first time he mentioned the book thing," Bradley says. "He said, 'Everyone in the world at one time or another says how fun it would be to own a bookstore."

Haft dragged Bradley off to the Boston branch of Barnes & Noble, a New York-based chain of discount bookstores. Haft would stand there for hours, watching the customers, trying to see what they bought, how they browsed, how the cashier was set up. It was an education for Bradley. "He had the kind of retail savvy that you would expect growing up in a retail family," the classmate says.

Bradley says Bobby Haft "works hard and plays hard." If Bradley had one word to describe his friend, he said, it would have to be "Energy." The Graduate

Immediately after graduation, Bobby Haft went to Dart Drug Corp. with the bookstore idea.

"It was Robert's idea," says Herbert Haft. "It's really his baby. He saw something like this up in Cambridge. He did some research and came up with reasonable program. He did his homework. We said it's worth a try."

Suddenly, Crown bookstores started springing up in shopping centers all our suburbia, most of them near a Dart Drug. Bobby Haft won't discuss the details of his arrangement with Dart. He also refuses to discuss his sales figures. According to recent financial statements, however, Dart's profits fell sharply in the past year from $3.5 million to $1.6 million. Herbert Haft blamed expansion of Crown and remodeling of existing stores for the downturn.

Is Crown as successful as it seems? "The question is, how much does he have invested and is he making a profit," says one industry source.

One thing is for certain, however, Crown has made a huge impact on the book business in Washington. The retail book business in the nation's capital has increased by 60 percent since Crown first opened. ("I can't take full credit for that," Haft allows.) Washington is now the fourth largest book market in the country, behind New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Adversely, Crown has made business less profitable for the smaller, independent bookstores, which claim they are no longer able to carry some borderline books, books that have literary importance but do not promise sales. b

"It's obviously a big problem," says Mary Jane Barnett of Discount Records and Books, which offers a 25-percent discount on best sellers. "The only way for a small store to make money is on the best sellers. Our sales are way down. Mr. Haft has cornered that market." 'Books Near a Buck'

Haft likes to eat breakfast at Clyde's. He settles back in his chair, satisfied. A waitress recognizes him. He is pleased. He leans forwards, and taps the table with his fingers.

"We're carrying what they want. Automotive manuals, gardening books, diet books, sports books. And we're providing a good product for a good price."

The layout of the stores is ingenious. To find the best sellers, which are stacked as far to the rear as possible without being in the parking lot, customers must first bypass the bargain display of "Books Near a Buck" -- reminders Haft buys for 25 cents (or less) and sells for $1.

He doesn't make as much on the best sellers, books like James Michener's "The Covenant," which lists for $17.95 and sells at Crown for $11.67. How does he do it?

"I make a little money on each book and hope to sell more," he laughs. "Its not done with mirrors. The truth is, we make a little on each."

All the books are displayed cover out, never on their spine. ("You can't tell a person by their cover, but you sure can tell a book," he says.) The sales clerks deliberately stay behind the counter, never offering any help. Crown also does not offer services, such as special ordering, gift wrapping and mailing. What's more, the crown stores all look exactly alike. No surprises. The McDonald's of food for throught.

"Bookstores are very intimidating to a lot of people. I wanted to make it unintimidating. People shop in our stores who've never been in a bookstore before," he says.

Which is the secret of Crown's success: Haft created his own market. What's more, the price is right. "I traveled around the country, visiting bookstores, talking to people before I opened the first store. I met a lot of people like the Levinsons, saying books cost to much. I didn't make that up," Haft says, referring to his successful sales slogan. "That's what I heard."

In many ways, he says, Crown Books is Bobby Haft.

And what is Crown Books reading right now?

"'Cosmos,' 'Tar Baby,' 'Masada,'" he says, "and Rita Jenrette's book, 'My Capitol Secrets.'" The Crowns in the Kingdom

He is anxious to get going on his Saturday afternoon tour of his kingdom. First, a trip to McLean, then Manassas (where Bibles are big sellers), then the Fairfax City shopping mall where a mom-and-pop bookstore, Da-Lee, folded last year -- a month after Crown moved in.

"It's their own fault," Haft says, bounding out of his Mercedes. "They shouldn't have been charging full price for books all those years."

He breezes into the store, greets the young manager and stalks the aisles. "I can see 10 things wrong here," he says, frowning. He spots a book on its spine. A pile best sellers is not displayed prominently. The Easter books are not up by the cash register.

"Have you gotten the new James Clavell book yet?" he asks a store manager excitedly. She looks frazzled. She is unpacking boxes of books. She mumbles something and looks away.

He walks toward the front of the store. On his way out, Bobby Haft leans down and straightens the CROWN BOOKS welcome mat.

"It's his dream," says his father. "He has vision."

Next month, Crown is scheduled to take over the Woolworth's on M St. in Georgetown, directly competing with nearby Book Annex, which discounts best sellers by 30 percent Book Annex will retaliate by taking over the old Dockside sight in Old Town, Alexandria -- a few blocks from a recently opened Crown.

The L.A. venture was a natural, Haft says. "It may seem like we're wild and aggressive, but I've spent three years building up this city. It's very important to us to recognize if we can be successful in another city."

Crown Books West is owned by a joint corporation -- Dart Drug and Thrifty Drug, its West Coast counterpart. Crown has the same arrangement with Thrifty as it does with Dart.

Industry socures say San Francisco is the next stop on Crown's express to success.

"The people who go to Crown better like that kind of bookstore," one book distributor signed philosophically. "Because eventually, that's all they're going to get."