"But what do you ultimately do with them?"

The question, logical to the adult interrogator, is put to a ten-year-old collector of stickers, who ripostes by begging the question: "But what do you ultimately do with a bottle-cap collection or a stamp collection?"

Another ten-year-old, Laura Wides, one of a couple hundred pre-teens who attended sticker fests last Saturday at four area branches of The Paper Store, gave a more straightforward answer: "Nothing -- I hoard them," she said, sporting glittery star stickers on her earlobes and carrying a checkbook box stickered with a pink rabbit on roller skates and a rainbow and crammed with hundreds of stickers. "Well, once in a while I use some for cards if I'm giving a birthday present to somebody I really like, but I don't like to use them. I only use the ones I have more of. If I had 20 of each kind . . . "

Sticker collecting, the latest craze to send pre-teens diving into their parents' pocketbooks, is big business. A whole new mini- industry vies to design the cuddliest teddy bears, the preppiest alligators, the most exquisite unicorns. The brightly colored stickers come on large rolls and are usually sold individually -- from about 15 to 75 cents a sticker. They're sold mainly at stationery and toy stores.

At the downtown Paper Store last Saturday, the rolls of stickers were out on the sidewalk, and young collectors oohed and aahed over Pegasuses, lips, slices of chocolate cake, Draculas and cowboy boots. Manager Al Blalock, dressed as a clown for the occasion, talked about the latest trends within the trend.

"Stickers have been around for four or five years. The whole trend may have evolved from the happy face -- the concept of bringing joy and happiness by sticking a smile on a letter. The newest things on the market are toots, where you get a whole lot of small stickers at a time. Then there are these teddy-bear stickers that come with a lot of different sticker clothes. A lot of kids like these stickers that turn colors when you press them. And these valley-talk stickers are popular," he said, explaining that the valley in question is somewhere near Los Angeles and that the stickers so named consist solely of phrases such as "totally awesome" and "gross me out the door."

By this time some of the kids have spread their collections on the sidewalk and are doing what kids do with stickers other than hoard them. They're trading them for other stickers to hoard. One gumball machine for two white clouds. One metallic bear on ice skates for two ice-cream sodas. Some have brought sticker collages to enter in the store's contest. This is considered a calculated risk. On the one hand, you had to use some of your stickers. On the other hand, you stood a chance of winning some prizes, including $10 worth of stickers.

In all four stores, suburban as well as downtown, kids showed and traded stickers and added to already sizable collections by buying more and getting bonus stickers with each purchase. Individual tastes varied but collectors shared a common goal -- getting more and better stickers.

"I like scratch-and-sniff stickers, the dessert kind, especially chocolate, as long as they don't make me gain weight," said ten- year-old Leola Dublin.

Six-year-old Ben Lewis, who has about a hundred stickers -- including some bearing his name, airplanes, stickers that smell and stickers that turn colors -- bought more of the same to "trade at school -- that's what you do, you trade for different ones you like."

Robin Reges, 11, who said she sometimes gives them as gifts and planned to make collages and designs once she gets a collecting book that lets you peel the stickers off again, specializes in cat stickers, especially Garfield stickers.

Winnie Leung, also 11, said that animal stickers were her favorites but that she kept her sticker zoo pretty much to herself.

"I put them somewhere and when my friends come I just let them see them,"she said.

STICKERING -- All you need to get started in sticker collecting, besides some spending money, is a hoarding box or an album with clear plastic pages. Sandylion Sticker Designs sponsors a sticker club, which offers, in addition to opportunities to buy the firm's stickers, a newsletter and a pen-pal service. Application forms are available in stores that sell stickers.