At a bookstore in downtown Washington yesterday, Gorbymania ruled once more. Gorbaswoons were back. It was as though nothing in history had changed. A man who might have trouble, figuratively speaking, getting a free cup of coffee in his own country was demonstrating all over again his wild star power in America. Who could explain it? Who needed to? It was the phenomenon that was so thrilling to observe. Gorbachic redux.

It was slightly daft. Someone had been camped out on the sidewalk at Borders Books & Music since 4:30 a.m. Someone showed up with a 4-week-old baby girl; the infant had a grape-stain birthmark on her forehead, and her mum was hoping there might be a wonderful photo-op. Someone else (she was dressed like a power-town lawyer) seemed to lose everything but bladder control as she put her hands up to her mouth and screamed to the immediate world, "I shook his hand!"

Honest, it really happened.

Honest, traffic got snarled at 18th and L streets NW. It was just like that other time -- you remember, when the most charismatic public figure on Earth, having come to town for a summit with President Reagan, astonished another midday crowd by jumping out of his Zil limousine at Connecticut and L to press some flesh. That was in 1987, which seems now like a date on the other side of time -- it was an iconographic moment made for global television. The man of glasnost and perestroika, who was then masterfully riding his country into another age, just wanted to meet real Americans. And so he hopped out.

"Gorby, we love you!" they screamed back then.

Yesterday, somebody aping a beer commercial screamed, "I love ya, man!"

History later took a turn against the man who had hopped out. History's like that.

So what was Mikhail Gorbachev, former premier and ex-president of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, doing at Borders at midday yesterday? He was doing what any author the world over does and must do. He was thumping the tub. He was selling copies of his new book. He was sitting at a blond table on the lower floor and using a big, stubby felt-tipped pen to scribble his name on the title page of a two-inch-thick tome, "Memoirs."

Was there something slightly unseemly in it? Never mind. He was making those American cash registers ring insanely.

He was going about as fast as he could go. Sorry, comrade, this is America, and you have to sell. Especially in America do you have to sell. The books barely touched the signing table. Security guards and bookstore personnel would sweep the copies out of customers' hands when they were three or four places back in line. When the customers arrived at the table, the copies would be stuck down in front of the great man, and he'd write his name, and the books would be snatched up again by the aides, who would stick them back into the customers' mitts.

And unceremoniously, these decidedly thrilled patrons would be herded back upstairs and out of the store and onto the sidewalk. Where more hundreds queued in vain hopes of just getting a look, never mind a signed book.

Next! Keep the line moving, please! Mr. Gorbachev only has an hour!

So what did you think, Gorby was going to have to slip into town like some sad-sack Willy Loman, a suitcase in his freckled paw, hoping against hope to drum up a little trade?

Forget it. The day before, on Thursday, he'd been in New York, hawking the wares at a Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue. He has just finished a 21-day lecture barnstorm across the country: the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan, the Boe Forum at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D. When you're on the circuit, you go where they book you.

Actually, the book-signing part of Gorbachev's recent travels in America consisted only of stops in Washington and New York. Yesterday, following his noon crush at Borders, the former Soviet leader came to The Washington Post for a meeting with editors. Last night he appeared at the National Press Club.

His book has been published in Russia, Germany, Japan, England, France and Spain. Publishers Weekly has gushed of the American edition that "his achievements changed the world and that for a time he gave us a sense of limitless possibilities." Once, there was a sense of his own limitless possibilities.

At 11:10 a.m. yesterday -- which is to say an hour and 20 minutes before he was due to begin signing, and when the queue had already swelled well beyond 600 people -- a wearied store employee announced to the newest hopefuls: "The line starts here, it's all sold out, we only had 600 copies, you're welcome to stand here, we can't guarantee you'll even see him."

For the next 20 minutes she repeated this, a kind of mantra. Didn't matter, they still lined up. By then, the managers of the store weren't allowing any more Gorbyhounds to come into the place -- a large store, on two levels.

By 11:30, an hour before the appearance of the man and the commencement of the scribble, the line of hopefuls had started to snake itself around L and up toward K. By 11:30, the TV cameras were in place, behind ropes close to the desk where Gorbachev would sit.

Perhaps you're curious about the identity of the first person in line.

Martin Weiss. He's 20. He's from the Philadelphia area. He's a student in international relations and economics. He came before dawn in khaki shorts and a rumpled sweater. He's enrolled at the University of Delaware, but this semester he's at American University. He got up at 3:45, and threw water on his face, and didn't really bother to comb his hair, and climbed onto his blue Mountain Track bicycle, and rode down Massachusetts Avenue in eerie darkness.

He locked his bike on a lamppost and staked out his place at the locked front door of the store. Nobody else was on the street, and he sat down and leaned against the glass and took out his books and the morning paper and read in the reflected glow of street lamps.

At 5:15, the next clutch of enterprising book buyers showed. At 6:30, the Au Bon Pain across the street opened.

Life! Coffee!

"I was so happy to see them," Weiss said yesterday morning, speaking of the autograph hounds who showed up at 5:15 to claim place Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5 in the line. Weiss, who's got a kind of bearish friendliness, waited with his Bell riding helmet and a bag of books. His eyes looked a little like pale Bloody Marys. He had two copies of "Memoirs" and said he intended to give one to a professor, not try to sell it on the black market.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing," he said. "He's one of the most important figures of the 20th century. He shaped the way the world is going."

He was asked if he could think of someone else he might go to such lengths for. "Somebody else? Oh, gosh. No, not for a rock concert or anything like that, if that's what you mean. Oh, gosh. Reagan? Maybe. Nelson Mandela. Yes. Definitely. Yitzhak Rabin. Yes. Actually, a lot of them would be dead now." He added JFK and John Barrymore to the list.

At about that moment, a reporter from the Voice of America came up. She addressed a question to Weiss and those holding the four positions behind him in the line: Why do we love him so much, and they hate him? "We" meaning Americans, and "they" meaning Russians.

Weiss: "See, he was caught in a situation where he wanted to reform. . . . He was trying to do it, and yet do it in a way so it wouldn't collapse in on itself."

It did collapse in on Mikhail Gorbachev, of course. And Boris Yeltsin, the one on whom power may next collapse in, emerged.

At about 11:40, a wearied Mary Ann Brownlow, who's in charge of community relations for the store, said she was guessing that the most books Gorbachev would be able to sign would be 300. Maybe 350. "Depends on how fast he goes," she said. "There's got to be 700 {people} out there now." She said that Jimmy Carter may be the modern-day champ at moving them fast down the line. "We had him here. It was a sport almost. He did over 1,000 in a little more than an hour."

When Gorbachev arrived, at 12:40, sweeping in from an off-street entrance, there was something like pandemonium. He had on a gray suit and a beige shirt and a tie that wasn't so stylish. He sat down and got to work. What was in his mind, one wondered? He certainly seemed happy enough, all this press of humanity telling him how important he still was. But was there some tiny part of him that realized as he wrote his name wildly that, after all, this was still only a book-flogging?

The mother who held the 4-week-old baby with the grape-colored birthmark was at the store with her in-laws and little Jamie. "I was hoping to sort of put the baby in his arms," said Christina Nathlar. And know what? This dream almost worked. Sometimes life nearly has perfect endings. After Gorbachev had signed for close to an hour, Nathlar and her infant got to the head of the line. Gorbachev, who'd been stopping occasionally to chat or shake a hand or rise from his seat, came full out of his chair. He took the tiny pink hand of the tiny pink child. His face exploded in sudden happiness.

"Kiss the baby!" a cameraman pleaded. He didn't do it. But there was maybe a half-minute of conversation between the mother and the statesman.

"He asked me if this was my first child," Nathlar said afterward. "I thought he was very human."

Later in the day, Gorbachev boasted that he had signed 600 books in the hour. But Brownlow, the coordinator, guesstimated that the great man signed close to 300 books. Which meant that maybe another 400, easy, went home with their faces sullen. CAPTION: The bottom line: Marilyn Bogan gets an autograph and a handshake from Mikhail Gorbachev, whose book signing yesterday snarled traffic outside Borders Books on L Street.