GREAT SHOPPERS are born, not made. Thomas V. Mike Miller, president of the Maryland state Senate, is married to a mallflower.

"My wife is from Bethesda, and she enjoys going back to her roots -- specifically, she enjoys going back to White Flint Mall," says Miller, a native of Clinton. "So I decided that after I'm deceased, I should be cremated and my remains sprinkled over the mall, so she and her mother can visit me every day of the week."

The shopping mall is the most significant social phenomenon of the mid-20th century. It is to the Baby Boom as the castle was to the feudal era, the church was to the Middle Ages and the court was to the Renaissance -- the cultural and commercial epicenter.

One people. One nation. One-stop shopping.

The Washington-Baltimore area already has two dozen major enclosed malls, and several of the busiest -- Georgetown Park, Wheaton, Fair Oaks -- have already added massive annexes. While the original Tysons Corner adds parking and panache, construction continues across Route 123 on a slick and upscale Tysons II mega-mall, due to open next fall. When will it all end? When we all drop . . . or when we fall back on the barter system.

So, born shoppers or just bent, we must all face the challenge of the shopping mall sometime. And for most people, the time is now. (We have seen the future, and it's a big Visa bill.) Herewith, a dry run through 19 local labyrinths, and some advice to help you make it back alive. IN THE DISTRICT

DOWNTOWN/THE SHOPS AT NATIONAL PLACE --

F Street between 13th and 14th NW. (A block from Metro Center.) Sharper Image, Banana Republic, Benetton and about 80 others. Opened 1986. The Shops is the lynchpin of the re-Yuppying of old downtown -- bright, brash and oh, so cute. In the year of the Croc', it even has a gift shop devoted to Australian imports. The Shops doesn't actually have a department store of its own, but we include it here because it was built to complement the refurbished Hecht's and Woodward & Lothrop, and shares an intersection with Garfinckel's.

GEORGETOWN PARK --

3222 M St. NW. Garfinckel's, Conran's and about 125 others. Opened 1981. This wrought-iron and skylight extravaganza, apparently inspired by some Victorian-era railway station, is D. C.'s main contender for White Flint's glitz crown (and at $5 for two hours' parking, with no validation stamps available, it has a distinct edge). Earlier this month, it unveiled an annex which answers the question, is there shopping beyond Garfinckel's? Yes, on four levels. If you're not prone to snow blindness, check out the White House, a white-marble women's store with outer- and underwear in shades from oystershell to eggnog.

MAZZA GALLERIE --

5300 Wisconsin Ave. NW. (Tunnel access to Metro's Friendship Station stop.) Neiman-Marcus, Raleighs, Ann Taylor and about 55 others on three levels. Opened 1977. The White Rock at the District Line has added windows and black-tile trim in recent years, but otherwise it remains cool and self-possessed. Sophistication is the mode here, but in the way Washingtonians imagine Manhattan to be. The Woodies just across Western Avenue also tunnels into the Metro station, and Lord & Taylor is just across the parking lot. Saks Fifth Avenue and the Gucci strip are a block north. IN MARYLAND

CAPITAL PLAZA --

6200 Annapolis Rd., Landover Hills. Montgomery Ward, Bradlees and about 50 other stores, plus a dozen mini-eateries, on one level. Opened 1963, renovated and enclosed 1985. No covered parking. The decor is mid-'60s SoHo industrial chic -- corrugated roofing and exposed scaffolding -- and the stores tend to the low-cost (there's a wagon on the mall floor that sells imitation perfumes). Christmas here is going to be moving and educational -- $80,000 worth of animated Bert and Ernie. displays. For older playmates, the tanning salon is in the back of the lingerie boutique.

COLUMBIA MALL --

10300 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia. Hecht's, Woodward & Lothrop, Sears and nearly 190 others on two levels. Opened 1971, expanded 1981. A major teen hangout, although it's one of the few area malls with no movies and seemingly more into munchies than menswear. On weekends, a flea market moves into the underground garage, and the antique dealers move onto the mall floor. And Clyde's, for those hoping to take a break, is all the way across the road, down by the lake.

FOREST VILLAGE PARK MALL --

3393 Donnell Dr. (I-95 at Route 4), Forestville. J. C. Penney, K mart and about 75 stores on one level (the Penney's has two). Opened 1980, just remodeled. No covered parking. With a windowless, bunker-style exterior and smallish interior (about a three-minute stroll, even with a child), Forest Village does offer free ear-piercing about every 50 yards. And a Frederick's of Hollywood storefront that inspired a preteen to boast, "It won't be long now till I can wear something like that and look good."

IVERSON MALL --

3737 Branch Ave., Hillcrest Heights. Woodward & Lothrop, Montgomery Ward and about 85 others on two levels. Opened 1967 and renovated in 1985. This is really twin mini-malls, one leading out from each of the two department stores and linked by a pedestrian bridge that crosses Iverson Road. It's also just down the street from the Marlow Heights Shopping Center, which has a Hecht's and Woolworth (and movies).

LAKEFOREST MALL --

701 Russell Ave., Gaithersburg (just off Rte. 355 at Montgomery Village Avenue, an I-270 exit). Woodward & Lothrop, Hecht's, J. C. Penney, Sears and 150 others on two levels. Opened 1978. No covered parking, and since the big stores have two-level entrances, lost cars are common. Built by the Taubman Co., which later brought you the even bigger Fair Oaks in Fairfax, Lakeforest is a great open cross, with an anchor store at each end and bafflingly similar strips of boutiques and bakeries between. This is heavy teen fashion town, kind of a White Flint for rednecks; it goes mercifully light on the chains-by-the-yard stuff.

LANDOVER MALL --

1713 Landover Rd., Landover. Garfinckel's, Woodward & Lothrop, Hecht's, Raleighs, Sears and 140 others. Opened 1972. No covered parking. PG's largest enclosed mall is also one of its most accessible; not only is it right at the Capital Beltway exit, when you ramp off I-495 onto Landover Road, there are two lanes devoted exclusively to maneuvering you into the mall parking lot (getting out is trickier). This is a pleasant mall, upscale but not snobby, soothingly done in blond wood and stucco-colored tile (though the empty fountain is jarring), but without a lot of personality. Even the kids around here seem subdued. On the other hand, it's not crowded, either, so think about it. One of the bright spots is Journeys shoes, where high-tops come not only in two-tone, but in two-tone checks.

LAUREL CENTRE MALL --

14821 Baltimore Rd. (U.S. 1), Laurel. Hecht's, J. C. Penney, Montgomery Ward and 120 others on two levels. Opened 1979. Right smack in the midst of the revitalized U.S. 1, Laurel Centre looks far newer than it is. Unfortunately, it sounds louder than it looks -- its atrium, a social gathering spot, is an echo chamber. On the plus side, Laurel Centre has non-slick floors, and is one of the few malls around with its own permanent post office, which could make mailing presents a lot simpler.

MONTGOMERY MALL --

7101 Democracy Blvd., Bethesda (at I-270). Garfinckel's, Woodward & Lothrop, Raleighs, Hecht's, Sears and 115 others on two levels. Opened 1968, expanded in 1976 and 1984. Ever since the county made the Best Co. take the Indian off its roof, Montgomery Mall just hasn't been as much fun. The mall is quieter inside than the usually frantic parking lot traffic would suggest (if you can come in from the Westlake Terrace side, instead of having to merge off 270 onto Democracy, you may save yourself some frazzle). Nor is it large, but built in a long L, it has a nice rambling effect. The quality clothing stores here, including the Raleighs and Garfinckel's, seem surprisingly underutilized. Most of the fast-food outlets are of the new ethnic variety, but at least they're bundled off in a little two-story alcove of their own.

WHEATON PLAZA --

11160 Viers Mills Rd., Wheaton. Raleighs, Woodward & Lothrop, Montgomery Ward, Hecht's and 100 others on two levels. Opened 1960, enclosed 1981, expanded this year. Wheaton Plaza, one of the area's oldest centers, is in mid-facelift, undergoing a major addition/renovation sparked by the arrival of Hecht's (which closed its store in downtown Silver Spring). The layout is easier to understand from inside than from outside (for instance, there's a sign indicating Hecht's is on the University Boulevard side, but it's really not). Situated in the heart of Wheaton, which is itself undergoing a Metro-fueled transformation from an old, middle-class suburb to a sort of International House of Retailers, the mall is populated by equal parts senior citizens and Johnny-come-lately punkers. It's a peaceful coexistence, except in the express lanes of the Giant.

WHITE FLINT MALL --

11301 Rockville Pike, Rockville. (Connected to Metro's White Flint stop by shuttle.) I. Magnin, Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdale's, Raleighs and more than 140 other stores on three levels. Too tre's for words (there's a piano player in the third-floor atrium). If you haven't paid American Express yet, don't leave home. This is one place where all that glitters may well be gold. In fact, White Flint is stone-heavy; there are a dozen independent jewelry stores, not to mention the sparklies in the department stores. White Flint has a fanatically loyal native constituency of under-21s and over-45s. The first group travels in packs, the second in pairs; they are rarely seen together. Bloomies is a buy-word, and with good reason -- it's a jungle in there. And with three floors of it, you may never get out. This is the only mall with a dress code; in fact, some kids have been known to raise scorecards as shoppers pass by. Under 5.0, and you have to go back home. IN VIRGINIA

BALLSTON COMMON --

Wilson Boulevard at Glebe Road, Arlington. (A block from Metro's Ballston stop.) Hecht's, J. C. Penney and 100 others on four levels (awash in mauve and turquoise paint, with accents in the floor tiles, crossbeams and railings) around a central skylit atrium. Opened in October 1986. The Hecht's here, overhauled two years ago, once dominated the former shopping center on this site (Parkington, 1955-1985, Virginia's first enclosed shopping mall). With the new larger Penney's and the smart spread of stores between the anchors, Ballston winds up being urbane and comfortable -- the place to go when you're in an I-know-what- I-want-but-I'm-willing-to-browse mood. Apart from the alarmingly claustrophobic feel of the adjacent 3,500-space garage, parking is easy. But it will cost you at least 50 cents.

FAIR OAKS SHOPPING CENTER --

U.S. 50 at I-66 and West Ox Road, Fairfax. Hecht's, Lord & Taylor, Sears, J. C. Penney, Garfinckel's, Woodward & Lothrop and about 210 others on two levels. Opened 1980, and a new 25-store annex opened this spring. If you can't find it here, among the clean lines and plexiglass dividers (and ambitious Christmas decorations) of Fair Oaks, you ain't gonna find it in a shopping mall. Built with an unFairfax-like eye toward future parking needs (8,000 spaces) and traffic patterns (the bridges and overpasses cost the developer an extra $5 million), Fair Oaks boasts another notable bit of traffic trivia: If you take I-66, you can reach the parking lot here from E Street downtown without hitting a single traffic light. Brake lights are a different story.

POTOMAC MILLS --

I-95 at Exit 52, Prince William. Ikea, Sears (open this month), Cohoes, Waccamaw Pottery and about 180 others along one low-ceilinged, sprawling level. Opened September 1985. Crowded since, oh, September 1985. This imposing discount mall, inches from the interstate (to and from which, by the way, you inch), sports a deliberately low-rent look -- it's more or less a huge chicken coop, with heat -- and a large variety of goods and stores you never heard of or thought of but somehow still need. To enjoy Potomac Mills, you must be the type who really enjoys shopping, and/or grazing. To enjoy Ikea, you must be the type who also really enjoys saving money -- and is handy with tools -- because you know that six-piece Ikea bedroom set you just bought for next to nothing? It comes in a box.

SEVEN CORNERS SHOPPING CENTER --

Route 7 at U.S. 50, Seven Corners. Woodward & Lothrop, Garfinckel's, Woolworth and about 65 others on two levels. Opened in 1956, completely renovated in 1977; recent upgrades include a new restaurant (Fuddruckers) and a Woodies' furniture store, and Lord & Taylor is just across Route 7. (Walk if you dare.) Seven Corners has evolved into almost a "neighborhood" mall -- certainly it is a slower-paced alternative to the big-time traffic at Tysons and Springfield, within car-hopping distance of a great deal of compatible outlets: Syms, Loehmann's, Zayre's, the Gap and Montgomery Ward. (It is also slower-paced, of course, because of the potholes in the parking lot . . .)

SPRINGFIELD MALL --

I-395 at I-495 and Franconia Road, Springfield. J. C. Penney, Garfinckel's, Montgomery Ward, Raleighs and about 210 others on two levels. Opened 1973. Substantially enlarged in 1985 and renovated this year -- including skylights, new floors, seating and eating facilities, most of the changes meant to brighten up this traditionally dark and cavernous (but utilitarian) place. Springfield Mall is certainly large enough to keep you here for a whole day (unless you were looking for a Hecht's, Woodies or Sears, which are up the road at Alexandria's aging Landmark Shopping Center, where they're still talking about a $100-million-plus enlarge-and-enclose project next year). Springfield's location and approach, though, is more likely what will keep you here all day: Just outside the parking lot, Franconia Road meets Shirley Highway meets the Beltway meets I-95 meets rush hour meets the holiday shopping season. Which brings us, however slooowly, to:

TYSONS CORNER CENTER --

Rtes. 7 and 123, McLean. Bloomingdale's, Hecht's, Woodward & Lothrop, Garfinckel's and about 220 others on one level. Opened in 1968 , and now under substantial renovation (parking decks, another partial level of stores, and the addition in March of the Seattle-based Nordstrom's department store). Shoppers have long been coming to Tysons for the reliable variety (and now, skylights!). Throughout the facelift, traffic has been, in a word, horrible. Though most of Tysons' new parking terraces are now open, traffic will only get worse in holiday time, especially since large chunks of the central International Drive remain closed. If you can't take a bus or shop early in the day or find what you need at the neighborhood Peoples, at least try to approach Tysons via Route 123 instead of the Gridlock City along Route 7. And use the Dulles Access Road extension from the Beltway to reach Route 123. Get a map. Get a Thermos. Get a clue.

Renee Leslie contributed to this report.

The Shopper's Guide to Surviving a Malling