Spring is a time for leisurely strolls. And in your travels, you might stop in at one of the Washington area's many small specialty bookstores, which seem to be thriving in the midst of chain-store encroachment.

"It's specialization the only way a small bookstore can compete," says Maria Quintana, manager of Calliope, a literary bookshop.

What specialty bookstores may lack in breadth, they make up for in depth of knowledge and selection. "Most specialized bookstore owners know their books inside out," says Pam Sacks, part-owner of Cheshire Cat Children's Bookstore.

Other advantages: personal service and an often soothing ambience such as soft music, a pot of coffee and an easy chair.

"A book is not a tube of toothpaste," says Politics & Prose owner Carla Cohen. "The discount chains operate on a fast turnover. A specialty store will let a title sit on the shelf for a year because it's a good book, and they're willing to wait for it to be discovered."

Here's a sampling:

Audubon Book Shop: Its gentle mood inside -- contrasted with the teeming upper Georgetown thoroughfare outside -- reflects Audubon's specialty, natural history. Books about butterflies, wildflowers and constellations share the shelves with Roger Tory Peterson's field guides to birds and Audubon's beginner guides to all aspects of the natural world. This is the place to find Jane Goodall and the chimps, Thoreau's journals and the Sierra Club handbook. Related items, such as birdfeeders and bug boxes. Bulletin board of nature activities. 1621 Wisconsin Ave. NW. (202) 337-6062.

Backstage: Amid the glittery costumes and greasepaint is a whole room devoted to books on film and the theater. Owner Jean Rosenthal, a stage-lighting designer, stocks antique playbills, biographies, dance books, film scripts, monologues for auditions, plays by title, posters, a technical section (lighting, makeup, set design) and vocal selections from Broadway shows. For pure fun, try a dialect tape to help you affect or shed a foreign or regional accent ($15.95). 2101 P St. NW. (202) 775-1488.

Calliope: A small, circular bookshop next to the Uptown Theater specializes in literature, but has a smattering of other subjects. Poets and fiction writers are arranged alphabetically -- Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Flaubert -- with biography or criticism on the shelf right next to the work. Occasional programs, such as book-making demonstrations. 3424 Connecticut Ave. NW. (202) 364-0111.

Cheshire Cat: While the kids snuggle down in the "rabbit hole" -- a reading nook furnished with bright pillows, puppets and picture books -- Mom and Dad can browse for children's books. Excellent selection, including works that answer such questions as "How does it feel to be adopted, handicapped, divorced?" Authors discuss and autograph children's books on spring and fall Saturdays. 5512 Connecticut Ave. NW. (202) 244-3956.

Common Concerns: Entering David Marcuse's bustling bookstore near Dupont Circle feels like a stroll back into the more activist '60s. Marcuse (no relation to Herbert) specializes in Third World left-wing politics and black studies. Related items, such as "End Nuclear Terror" T-shirts, "I Have a Dream" posters and black history playing cards. 1347 Connecticut Ave. NW. (202) 463-6500.

Hearthstone: Compact bookshop in Alexandria specializing in genealogy, which owner Stuart Nixon got into as a hobby 12 years ago. Arranged by geographic regions and ethnic groups, with separate sections on tracing American Indian, Jewish and black roots, and a healthy contingent of Scotch-Irish books. Also guides on where to find records (such as "Immigrant and Passenger Arrivals" on microfilm at Archives), how to compile research and family tree charts. Good starter books: Unpuzzling Your Past ($8) for adults and My Family Tree Workbook ($2.25) for children. 108 S. Columbus St. (703) 549-8211.

International Learning Center: Possibly Washington's largest selection of foreign dictionaries and books about language, from Albanian to Zulu. This is the place to find Swahili Grammar. Also, major travel guides and maps, foreign language cassettes, histories and policies of foreign countries, games (Spanish Scrabble, Japanese Monopoly) and children's books.. Foreign newspapers and magazines. 1715 Connecticut Ave. NW. (202) 232-4111.

Jewish Bookstore: Jewish or not, you will -- to the beat of a lively ethnic tune -- become quickly immersed in the world of Jewish humor and cooking, biography and history, art and sports, storytellers such as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem. Next door, a gift shop stocking the area's best selection of Passover haggadahs and Seder plates, Kiddush cups, mezuzahs, yarmulkes, tallises, shofars, menorahs and Hanukah gelt. 11250 Georgia Ave., Wheaton. (301) 942-2237.

Among other religious bookshops: the Baptist Bookstore, 1315 York Rd., Lutherville, Md. (301) 621-4317, and the Newman Bookstore near Catholic University, 3329 8th St. NE. (202) 526-1036.

Lambda Rising: Near Dupont Circle, bills itself as "the world's largest gay and lesbian bookstore." Offers a quarterly newsletter, mail-order catalogue, bulletin board, monthly author programs, support services for friends and relatives of gays. Besides such literary examples as Vita Sackville-West's letters to Virginia Woolf, books on AIDS, coming-out stories, religion, history, mystery and "Kindred Spirits," an anthology of gay and lesbian science fiction. 1625 Connecticut Ave. NW. (202) 462-6969.

Moonstone Bookcellars: 10,000 science-fiction, fantasy and mystery titles squeezed into 400 square feet of space below a small barber shop on Pennsylvania Avenue. Owner Phil Grossfield keeps up with newcomers, as well as old favorites, such as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Stephen King. Easy camaraderie among sci-fi and mystery fans. 2145 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. (202) 659-2600.

Politics & Prose: "We're trying to become a place where people can come and talk about books," says owner Carla Cohen, who schedules authors every Sunday at noon. Quiet, comfortable space to savor a cup of coffee and a good book or peruse political and literary magazines. Tries to stock Washington authors. 5010 Connecticut Ave. NW. (202) 364-1919.

Pyramid Book Store: Specializes in "books by and about people of African descent," says owner Hodari Ali, a Howard University grad and WPFW jazz programmer. His shop always has burning incense and records playing jazz or reggae. Also records and tapes, recorded speeches of black leaders and use of an instant cassette duplication machine. 2849 Georgia Ave. NW. (202) 328-0190.

Reiter's: Large, well-organized bookstore on Pennsylvania Ave. reminiscent of a college library. The place to find standard professional, scientific and technical texts, like Gray's Anatomy and The Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, dictionaries and other reference books (five for crossword puzzles alone), medical books broken down by specialty and/or profession. Small section on composers, cerebral games like chess, even a book on great magicians' tricks. 2120 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. (202) 223-3327.

Sports Books, etc: According to owner Paul Haas, one-of-a-kind in the country. Springfield shop offers a selection of 300 sports-figure posters, 300 different magazines and books on 65 sports. Separate sections on such subjects as the Olympics, sports medicine, fitness, biography. A sports fan since childhood, Haas says his largest and best-selling category is baseball. 7073 Brookfield Plaza, Springfield. (703) 451-1884. Travel Books Unlimited: Washington travelers, armchair and actual, will appreciate owner Rochelle Jaffe's collection of top travel literature, guides and maps in one place. Also language cassettes, dictionaries, menu translations, travel posters ($5.75 each), logs and books on tape for long car trips. Bonus: Jaffe will special-order any book in print. 4931 Cordell Ave., Bethesda (301) 951-8533.

Yes!: A Georgetown bookstore to make you mellow. Name your prophet -- the I Ching, the Bhagavadgita, Carlos Castaneda -- Yes! carries them all. Tranquil music flows through a series of softly lit rooms holding books on yoga, Tibetan Buddhism, Jungian psychology, tarot cards, astrology, herbal medicine, macrobiotic pregnancy, hydroponic gardening. 1035 31st NW, (202) 338-7874. Books and Bites

Book Annex: above a record shop in Old Town with The Waterfront Tea Room in back. Choose a book from their highly eclectic selection, head for the wood counter overlooking the water and order the hot shrimp and cheese on a croissant, jasmine tea, and warm peach cobbler with ice cream. Watch the tugs go by; think spring. 106 S. Union St., Alexandria. (703) 684-0077.

Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe: Dupont Circle's busy gathering place. Bookstore in front, small bar and table service in back; the cafe moves outdoors in nice weather. Open until 1 a.m. on week nights, 3 a.m. on weekends. Eight kinds of cappuccino and espresso, Sunday brunch for $7.50 and some dynamite desserts (such as sour cream blackout cake). Pick up a copy of Paris Review, listen to the blues, and make believe you're on the Left Bank. 1517 Connecticut Ave. NW. (202) 387-1400.