Sometimes, a card just isn't enough. For a sick friend. When you want to say thanks but don't know how. As a small gift for a host or hostess. To a newly divorced colleague. Or on any occasion when it seems ridiculous to spend a buck or two for 10 seconds of easy-going sentiment.

There always have been other options, but all have problems: a bottle of booze (increasingly frowned upon by the sober-minded). A bottle of wine (expensive if done right, tacky if not). A book (difficult to find the proper one). Flowers (tendency to feel foolish carrying them down the street).

Redpath Press, a Minneapolis publisher, has come up with a new angle: Perfect Presents. These are 7 1/2-by-4-inch booklets, each containing a classic short story. The idea is, you give O. Henry's The Gift of the Magi around Christmas. For Valentine's Day: Woody Allen's The Lunatic's Tale. For graduation: Garrison Keillor's Don: The True Story of a Young Person. As a bon voyage gift: Saki's The Story-Teller. There are now 18 stories available, and all are appropriate for several occasions. The cost is $4.95 or $5.95 -- more than a card, sure, but think how many more words they contain.

"A greeting card presents a fragment -- happy birthday, wish you were here. They're good statements, but fragments. But when there's a whole storyline, there's something you can take away. It gives you a burst of energy," says Ann Redpath, the brains behind the project.

"People will turn on Garrison Keillor every week, just because hearing a good story is an experience we all love. The gift element follows quickly from that, because when we hear it, the first thing we do is share it."

Perfect Presents are pretty -- almost too pretty. Done in heavy cream stock with rainbow streaks, each is 32 pages long. There's a color drawing on the cover, several black-and-white interior illustrators, and the first letter of the first word in various paragraphs is tinted. You also get a mailing envelope, and explicit instructions on how to send it.

John Cheever's Angel of the Bridge, for instance, is recommended for travelers, New Yorkers or neurotics. (Presumably, it becomes even more suitable if you hit two or three out of three -- there are a lot of traveling, neurotic New Yorkers out there.) The prospective purchaser is further informed that this $5.95 book would be suitable as a Father's Day, birthday, holiday season or get-well card.

Some potential buyers may be put off by this explicitness -- Redpath does everything for you except lick the stamp -- but apparently it's necessary to leave nothing to the imagination.

"This is still a new idea," says Redpath. "Even if people get the concept, they frequently don't know if Roald Dahl's Taste is good to give a woman as well as a man. Any information helps people." And if you already know the story, of course, you don't have to follow the guidelines at all.

Redpath Press books currently are sold more in bookstores than in card shops -- among the D.C. stores selling them are Chapter's, Olsson's, Bartleby's, Politics and Prose, and several Walden locations -- but that's not necessarily by design. Card shop owners have been slower to take to the concept, Ann Redpath says, "because they feel their customers don't read."