ON THE DAY after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year, the big stores were reported jammed, the parking lots at suburban malls overflowing. Yet, many of Washington's museum shops were nearly deserted.

At the National Building Museum, a few serene shoppers browsed amid its architectural books and prints, model buildings and unusual jewelry. Over at the Folger Shakespeare Library, a few tourists seemed delighted to have the well-stocked gift kiosk, with its Renaissance and theatrical souvenirs, all to themselves. And so it went, all over town. As the stores around town become more hectic, the museums are an efficient alternative for the last-minute shopper.

It's well known that the Smithsonian museums along the Mall abound with wonderful gift items, but they also abound with people. To take full advantage of museum shopping for the holidays, with its less-frantic atmosphere and its variety of unusual, high-quality gift ideas, you have to go to the smaller museums a little bit off the beaten path.

Museum shops aren't for bargain-hunters, although an occasional bargain may be found and most items seem quite reasonable. Their strong point is selling distinguished items you would be hard pressed to find elsewhere.

Two words of caution. First, many smaller museums charge admission. While you can visit all of the museum shops listed below without paying to see the exhibits, the policy may vary at other places. Second, many museums well worth a visit simply don't have gift shops. For instance, the Capital Children's Museum at 800 Third St. NE, which might seem a good source for kids' presents, no longer operates a store. It's best to call if you're in doubt.

With all this in mind, let's set off on a holiday shopping spree in Washington's smaller museum shops. They have something for everyone on your list. CAPITOL HILL AND EAST.

The Folger Shakespeare Library (201 East Capitol St., 10 to 4 Monday to Saturday) has gifts at all prices for lovers of the Bard, the theater and the Renaissance. You can pick up a Shakespearean T-shirt for $9.95. A cutout Elizabethan house and garden ($14.95) or a "color-and-build" model of the Globe Theatre ($3.50) will amuse the younger set, while scarves with views of Elizabethan London run under $25. You can toss around a Shakespeare "Whirligig of Time" flying disk for just $3.50.

The Library of Congress sales desk on the ground floor of the old Jefferson Building (First and Independence SE, 9 to 5 except Sunday) offers mementoes of the Library's wide-ranging collections, including notable maps and folk recordings. For $1.95 you can buy a stencil to write messages in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics or in modern Chinese. A silk scarf with the pattern of the ceiling of the great Reading Room runs $17.95, and violin-shaped pillows a dollar less.

Across the street, the U.S. Supreme Court (9 to 4:30 Monday to Friday) offers attractive keepsakes for the lawyers in your life, ranging from a stainless steel engraving of the Constitution ($210) to bookends, portraits of the justices (from $8), and even a plastic "I've Been to the Supreme Court" shopping bag for 50 cents.

A bit off the Hill, the National Building Museum (Old Pension Building, Fourth and F NW at Judiciary Square Metro Shop, 10 to 4 Monday to Friday, noon to 4 on weekends,) features architectural books, prints and toys. China planters in the shape of banks, diners, grocery stores ($20) and rubberized bracelets stylized to suggest Paris or Manhattan Island ($27) mix with more conventional popup books and deco tea sets.

The Navy Museum (Building 76, Navy Yard, Ninth and M streets SE; 9 to 4 weekdays, 10 to 5 weekends) will be a favorite with children, yet it has handsome gifts for adults as well. Kids can buy their pals colorful ship stickers or souvenir key rings, respectively at a dime and a quarter. White sailor caps ($2.50), sea bags with a nautical print ($7.50), "Astronaut Ice Cream" ($1.25), and toy periscopes ($6.50) complement plastic model kits ranging from Old Ironsides to PT 109. Adults will like a brass ship's bell ($55) or neckties with the motto "Don't Give Up the Ship!" ($12.50).

Across the Anacostia River, the Frederick Douglass Home (Cedar Hill, 1411 W St. SE, 9 to 4 daily) offers a variety of books about the great Abolitionist and about black history in general. Many are aimed at younger readers, including the Frederick Douglass Coloring Book ($1.50).

Farther upriver, the Arbor House Gift Shop at the National Arboretum (24th and R streets NW; 10 to 3 Monday to Friday, 11 to 4 weekends) features gifts related to plants, trees and animals. A quarter will buy a toy bee cleverly made of pipe cleaners and chenille. Vases, flower presses and recipe books come at all prices. Especially notable is jewelry made by coating in silver actual leaves of ivy, roses, geraniums and even parsley ($12-28). DUPONT CIRCLE and NORTH.

The National Geographic Society Explorers' Hall (17th and M streets NW, 9 to 5 Monday to Saturday, 10 to 5 Sunday) can't be beat for books, maps, records and other souvenirs of culture the world over.

The Christian Heurich Mansion of the Columbia Historical Society (1307 New Hampshire Ave. NW, 10 to 4 Tuesday to Saturday) specializes in Washingtoniana, with books, maps, and specialized monographs. Natives will especially appreciate Eleanor M. V. Cook's lucid new Guide to the Records of Your District of Columbia Ancestors ($9), an indispensable guide for the local genealogist.

The Phillips Collection (1600-1612 21st St. NW; 10 to 5 Tuesday to Saturday, 2 to 7 Sunday) has an excellent museum shop as well as a tea room for relaxation. Handmade paper books with blank pages ($27) make impressive diaries. Silk scarves with William Morris designs ($40) and a variety of unusual puzzles and toys complement the art books and reproductions of pieces in the Phillips collection.

The Textile Museum (2320 S St. NW; 10 to 5 Tuesday to Saturday, 1 to 5 Sunday) features not only superb fabrics, but also a range of decorative items. Neckties from exquisite museum designs ($28) and much jewelry are noteworthy.

The Woodrow Wilson House (two doors down at 2340 S St., 10 to 4 Tuesday to Sunday) has been decorated for the holidays in the taste of the early '20s, when the ex-president retired here. The museum shop features gifts for all ages evoking the World War I era. Outstanding are beads, jewelry, and pewter frames ($10 and up).

Tucked away in a basement at 2018 R St. NW, the nonprofit Art, Science and Technology Institute (11 to 7 Tuesday to Sunday) exhibit of holograms (haunting three-dimensional photographs with a variety of scientific and technical uses) has a shop selling unusual hologram jewelry and decorative items. Brooch pendants ($32) picturing flowers, animals or abstract designs; glittering earings ($12-$16) and colorful stickers for the kids ($1.90) are fascinating mementos of this emerging technology.

Despite ongoing construction, the Dumbarton Oaks Museum (1703 32nd St. NW; 2 to 5 daily, closed Mondays) offers a limited number of reproductions of pieces in their collection in the $10-$30 range, including an Egyptian crucifix from the Middle Ages and a pre-Columbian monkey brooch from Central America.

The Washington Dolls' House and Toy Museum, a private establishment (5236 44th St. NW, a block behind Mazza Gallerie; 10 to 5 Tuesday to Saturday, 12 to 5 Sunday) sells antique toys on consignment as well as stocking doll-house supplies.

Glen Echo Gallery in the old tower at the Glen Echo Park and Clara Barton House property (MacArthur Boulevard at Goldsborough Road, Glen Echo; noon to 5 Tuesday to Saturday) sells many crafts commemorating the park's famous carousel, including t-shirts, prints, coloring books, and records and tapes of its calliope music. Handmade rag dolls ($22) and local crafts make unique gifts. VIRGINIA

Although within 20 miles of downtown, Gunston Hall (Route 242 four miles east of U.S. 1, Lorton; 9:30 to 5 daily) is so far from the madding crowd that in December you may encounter wild deer grazing along its driveway. The home of Revolutionary War thinker George Mason has one of the finest gift shops around. Colonial reproduction China, toys, garden ornaments, pewter and stuffed animals are features of the collection. Colonial "mob caps" for girls ($6), pepper jelly and honey from the plantation, and its own children's book, Louise Turner's It's a Great Day: The Story of Rusty the Gunston Hall Fox ($6.95), reflect the home's heritage.

Closer in, Woodlawn Plantation (U.S. 1 at Route 235, Mount Vernon; 9:30 to 5 daily) likewise boasts a shop worth a visit in its own right. Birdfeeders and handicrafts, Virginia foods, traditional toys and a variety of books about art, history and architecture abound. Limited edition doll house-scale handmade miniatures of actual Woodlawn furniture range from a $90 bedside table to a $425 Chippendale secretary. On the lower end of the scale, kids may like an old-fashioned wooden popgun for just $2.50. While you're there, you may want to go upstairs to see the 19th-century Christmas decorations.

If you haven't been to Mount Vernon (end of the George Washington Parkway at Route 235; 9 to 4 daily) for a couple of years, you may be pleasantly surprised to find a gift shop more elegant than you remember. Naturally, the inexpensive mass-produced souvenirs are still there, but they are supplemented with colonial reproductions. George and Martha Washington dolls go for $14.50 to $21 depending on size, while acrylic Afghans in traditional patterns run $40. A selection of Virginia wines is also available, with "GW" monogram glassware to go with it. Happily, Mount Vernon still sells plants grown on site, from $1.50 up. A snack bar and a restaurant flank the shop.

The Lyceum (201 South Washington St., Alexandria; 10 to 5 daily), Old Town Alexandria's museum, specializes in gifts reflecting the heritage of a colonial seaport. Along with Williamsburg reproductions, you'll find handblown glass paperweights with Old Town scenes for $9.50 and a handcarved toy canal barge for $26. The free exhibit of "historic vessels in miniature" is also worth seeing.

Stephen J. Ackerman is a Washington writer.