Almost any weekday afternoon you can watch the ballet--rowing teams from local colleges hefting delicate crew shells over their right shoulders, pivoting down to the long dock, bending knees to slip the boats into the waiting Potomac, all in choreographed unison. Then, just as carefully, they edge into the shells and row away to the cox's call.

Thompson's Boat Center lies at the foot of Virginia Avenue, where murky Rock Creek meets the wide Potomac, almost in the shadow of the Watergate Hotel and close to the bike path and parkway. The boat center itself is a cavernous warehouse of brick and ugly yellow siding, with a nondescript concrete plaza facing the river. But inside are racks and racks of slender shells, as well as bicycles for rent.

Leaving the bike path, you cross a funky little stone bridge over the creek, with duck families paddling below and tree boughs hanging into the brackish water. Then you are at the wide-open Potomac, with Key Bridge and the Georgetown waterfront to your right, the monuments visible over your left shoulder and the unspoiled forest of Roosevelt Island lining the shore. It's a place that invites you to just plunk down and sit till sunset.

Some days my 5-year-old and I watch the choreography of the crew teams, or chat with the bikers for a while, then wend our way along the waterfront to elegant Washington Harbour for a soda or ice cream. Energized, we sneak upstairs at the Boat Center to use the old rowing machines on the second floor. You strap your feet in, scoot your butt back and forth, feel the breeze from the crank as your arms tighten and pull, and watch the river roll by outside the wide picture windows. No one seems to mind.

--Elizabeth Wiener, Washington

Beg, Borrow . . . Buy

If you're looking for a cheap read, the best places to shop are the D.C. public libraries. Many of them have books for sale (either donated or "decommissioned" from the collection), and the prices are great. At the Tenley-Friendship Library, for instance (at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Albemarle Street NW), a constantly changing set of books is prominently displayed in the main reading room. They're priced at $2 for a hardcover and $1 for a large paperback. Beach reading paperbacks (sci-fi, romance, adventure, mystery, biography, etc.) are four for a dollar. Chevy Chase, Martin Luther King and many other libraries also have a constant supply of books for sale at similar prices. The collections are much more eclectic than your typical bookstore's, with a wide variety of popular books interspersed with references, texts, foreign-language, out-of-print and general esoterica. Occasionally a real treasure shows up. I've found that, in some cases, if you can endear yourself to the book sale organizers on the library staff, they're sometimes willing to let you have a peek at the books in the "back room" that haven't yet been put on the sale shelves, so you can get first dibs on that signed copy of "Monica's Story" that someone donated, or a lifetime's collection of National Geographics.

--David Sarokin, Washington

The Insider's Guide depends on reader submissions. We pay $50 per item. Submit (accompanied by address, daytime phone and Social Security number) via e-mail (shrodert@washpost.com); fax (202-334-5587); or mail (Insider's Guide, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071). No items promoting personal business interests accepted.

CAPTION: Not a borrower from the lending library be. Buy summer reading books for next to nothing.

CAPTION: The crew from Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington calls it a day.