You used to be able to measure the muscle of a town by its pool hall, but you'd judge its heart and mind in its bookstore (and library). The store was generally down a side street and it was small, poorly lit, and filled with the singular, heady, blooming smell of new books -- a thousand tongues wagging in eloquent silence. You were there early on an aimless afternoon and, after being wedged for a seeming half hour in a back corner with the new Hersey or O'Hara or Welty, looked up and saw the 5 o'clock sun coming through the maple outside the front window .

From a recent "Talk of the Town" in The New Yorker.

Judging from this characterization, Washington has long been a town of vigorous heart and mind. Soon after World War II, one store, Sidney Kramer Books on H Street, owned a reputation as an intellectual salon for high-ranking diplomats and economists. Another, the Savile Book Shop in Georgetown, won fame as "one of the best-stocked bookshops in the world."

As Washington became more citified, so too did its bookstores. In the District as well as the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, new, well stocked stores cropped up like presidential candidates in an election year.

Bob Bialek, owner of Discount Records, added books to his inventory in 1961 and marked down best sellers 20 percent. By the mid-1970s, he had opened two more Discount Records and Books, in Friendship Heights and at White Flint.

In 1968, Bill Kramer took over his parents' H Street store; by 1973 he had opened the area's first scholarly remainder store and, three years later, two more Kramerbooks, on Capitol Hill and north of Dupont Circle.

After managing Savile through its halcyon days, Jim Tenney, widely regarded as Washington's premier bookseller, set up shop at two Book Annexes, at 19th and L Streets, and on Wisconsin, just above M Street, in Georgetown.

This was not idle expansion. By 1977 Washington boasted not only the nation's highest per capita income, but rivaled Chicago as the second biggest book market in the country.

Then Crown Books moved to the block in late fall 1977, ushering in a new era of discount bookselling in Washington. The national chains like Waldenbooks and B. Dalton could read the demographics as well. "But when those chains moved in," says the regional sales manager for a New York publisher, "they set up shop inconspicuously in the suburbs. None announced themselves as boldly or as brashly as Crown."

Within a year Crown had opened 11 discount stores in proximity to many established bookstores. Booksellers, who are fond of distinguishing between bibliophiles and book merchandisers, looked upon its arrival as the Armageddon of the written word.

The magnate behind Crown is an ambitious and savvy 25-year-old named Robert Haft. His father, the one who supplies the vitamins, is Herbert Haft, president of the Dart Drug Company.

Crown Books is not your ordinary bookstore. You will generally find it not on some side street, but in a shopping mall. It is, mercifully, well-lighted, but you might not want to while away an afternoon there. What is unique about Crown is the price of the books it stocks: across-the-board discount pricing, including a 35 percent markdown on all New York Times hardcover bestsellers, and 25 percent off Times bestselling paperbacks. In Washington, bestselling books have rarely been sold so cheaply.

Crown is modeled after another regional chain called Barnes & Noble, which the younger Haft frequented as a student of the Harvard Business School. "I came back from Boston and wondered why we didn't have it here," he recalls. Backed by his father's company, Haft opened his first Crown Books in Rockville less than five months after graduation. By Christmas 1978, he had unveiled 10 more Crown Books, including two within five blocks of the White House.

Like book publishing -- which is fueled with controversy over mergers and conglomeration -- bookselling has undergone profound changes in recent years. Saturation advertising and high-volume, fast-turnover sales -- these are the new buzzwords of this once genteel trade which Christopher Morley, a literary critic of the 1920s and '30s, called "the most godly profession known to Man."

In 1971 there were 9,000 book outlets nationally; now there are more than 15,000 whose book sales last year totaled $1.9 billion. At last count, the two largest chains, B. Dalton and Walden, numbered 840 stores between them nationwide. All told, these well-oiled chains account for one-half of all retail hardcover sales, and their market share grows steadily.

"I spent 1977 traveling all over the country, talking to customers. 'What do you want in a bookstore?' I asked them. They all said they wanted to pay less for books."

"As a consumer," Haft adds, "the only place I would go is Crown."

But, like Barnes & Noble, Crown stands apart from the others. While Dalton, Walden and Brentano's sell new books at publisher's list price, Crown marks down every book every day.

In Washington Crown's unbridled growth and discount pricing have resulted in such staggering sales as 28,000 copies of James Michener's Chesapeake and more than 60,000 of The Complete Book of Running . These and other bestseller sales have cut dramatically into those of smaller, independent bookstores. Globe Book Shop owner Alex Roesell estimates that Crown now controls as much as 40 percent of the bestseller market. It is precisely this market loss that a number of bookstore owners feel is threatening.

"I'm a very straight person," says Norm Green, who owns two small stores called Book-Art, Ltd., in Oakton and Reston."I think Crown will destroy the book business in Washington. It has already affected me very deeply. Rumors have it they'll have 50 stores along the East Coast within a few years. If indeed this is the case -- and they have the financial backing to do it -- they can run the independents out of business."

"We've tried to grow quickly," Haft says, neither confirming for denying these rumors. "Our first goal was 11 stores by Christmas [1978]. As for growth, I don't know. I have to see."

At the 19th and L Streets branch of the Book Annex, sales are off one-third to one-half since Crown moved in three blocks away at 21st and K Streets. Before Crown, a store aide notes, daily sales averaged a minimum of $1,000. Now some are as low as $400. In the ledger book, besides a $641 sales day, someone has written in the margin, "Numbers tell no lies."

"If people look into their pockets and shop here only for special orders, I'll go out of business," says Helen Ross, whose Ampersand Book Store now contends with a suburban Maryland Crown. Ampersand is a very small book emporium -- its yearly sales bolume is just $150,000 -- but it is considered the anchor store in the Bethesda Square mall. In January, to cut down on overhead, Ross closed her doors on Sundays and sacrificed one full-time for two part-time employes.

"I don't know how to survive," says Lillian Barrett, proprietor of the Bookworm in Gaithersburg, whose sales have plunged almost 30 percent since Crown moved into a nearby mall. In November she began marking down all hardcovers 20 percent and ordering sidelines like Dallas Alice T-shirts and Beatrix Potter stuffed animals to help plug the bestseller drain.

"I want to be a small bookstore," she says, "not a 'books 'n' stuff' store."

Allied with these embattled stores are the larger independents like Discount Records and Books and Kramerbooks who, because of their product mix, are better insulated against the challenge from Crown. But, as Discount's Amy Gussack says, "How can you not be affected when you have 11 new stores to contend with? There are only so many slices of the pie. Smaller stores will be hurt first, but what happens then?"

The "big is bad" argument that Crown has rekindled is a tired one perhaps. But here it is suffused with special meaning: what may be at issue is not only the kind of store that brightens our cities and suburbs, but the kinds of books that line bookstore shelves.

Because they offer full lines of new and backlist titles, independent bookstores are the traditional backbone of the industry. Moreover, the independent (and the national chains) will specialorder any title not in stock that is in print. Crown, however, will not.

Local booksellers say they are most disturbed by Crown's limited inventory, particularly in categories such as literary classics, philosophy, psychology and women's studies. "Crown carries few if any of our finer books which [Jim] Tenney, Savile and Discount stock in fairly good quantity," says a sales rep for a highly regarded New York publisher.

Robert Haft explains his selection process in this way: "Out of all the books to come out every year [more than 40,000], I'm showing the ones people want. If they know what they're interested in, there's no sense in paying more."

A recent survey of four Crown stores revealed a good selection of classics by Faulkner and Proust (all seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past could be obtained at the 21st and K Crown, four of the seven at the McLean Crown), but a severely limited stock of university press books, the works of Freud and Kant, and no copies fo the new, widely reviewed Letters of Flannery O'Connor .

"Granted, we have a narrow selection," concedes a Crown store manager who asked not to be indentified. "We have some stores in which it's very limited. We can't carry twos and threes of certain titles and still make money."

Aaron Asher, editorial director of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, articulates booksellers' concerns by saying, "We're unhappy about any threat to the independent bookstore, any store that doesn't stock full lines of books. We're unhappy about stores that limit or restrict their stock to fastmoving titles."

Booksellers -- and some publishers as well -- are doubly concerned that the demise of ma-and-pa bookstores will have a far-reaching effect on the major publishers, inducing them to curtail their lists of new titles and concentrate on what's known as "the big book."

"These new dominant forces will determine publishers' future lists," says Globe's Alex Roesell. "Readers of enterainment may be satisfied, but specialized, discerning readers will have to hunt for stock."

"Yes, it seems to me that it is true," says Oxford University Press vice president Gerald Sussman. "My guess is that to the extent publishers have to show bottom lines, they're trying to set the trend and work with the chains."

"Already there is a trend in publishing toward the lowest common denominator," says Bill Kramer. "Crown will accelerate this trend, the Hollywoodization of books."

Robert Haft disagrees, finding no basis for claims that chains like Crown will streamline publishers' lists. "What we have done is expand the market," he says. "The creative spirit in America is not dampened.There will always be a good selection of books."

Haft finds agreement from many of the major publishers who feel increased revenues (from bestsellers, reprint auctions and movie deals) pay dividends in editorial diversity as well as marketing support.

"No, publishers aren't streamlining," says Charles Dorsey, sales manager for W.W.Nortor, publishers of John Sirica's long-awaited Watergate book. "The competition from the discount chains in particular creates traffic and boosts total sales."

Both Dorsey and Haft are alluding to the example of Barnes & Noble which, when it opened a store directly across the street from the venerable Scribner Book Shop on New York's Fifth Avenue, offered, like Crown, 35 percent markdowns on hardcover bestsellers. The industry anxiously awaited the outcome. To its astonishment, Scribner's sales surged up . Barnes & Noble "certainly brought traffic in, with all its advertising," a Scribner official said, though he also credited such internal factors as expansion of the paperback department. That lent credibility to the notion that Barnes & Noble benefited more from new sales than transfer sales. Up and down the avenue, browsers were becoming buyers; more people were reading more books.

It is too early to draw parallels between New York's and Washington's bookstore wars, but an essential paradox seems to be at work: on one hand, independent bookstore owners think the chains and discounters threaten to sweep them out of business; on the other, the chains and discounters are making book buyers out of browsers and erstwhile nonreaders.

Some simple bookselling economics will clarify industry concerns.

Publishers sell new books to stores on a discount schedule that slides between 40 and 47 percent; the greater the quantity of the order, the higher the discount. The bookseller, however, must pay all freight costs to and from the publishers' warehouses, costs that average between 3 and 7 percent of retail dollar sales. (Publishing is one of the few industries in which the product can be returned by the retailer for full credit.) So, on the sale of a $10 book, like The Complete Book of Running , a store like Ampersand, which orders in twos and threes, grosses about $4 per book. Crown, which orders in thousands, buys it for $5.30 (less 47 percent) and sells it for $6.50, leaving a narrow per-book profit margin.

"Bestsellers aren't a big money-making proposition for us," says a high-ranking Crown official.

For most independents, bestseller sales are critical. "They not only pay PEPCO and the rent," explains Bookworm's Lillian Barrett; "they support the luxury of stocking a backlist," those previously published books, which, without advertising or review promotion that supports new titles, sell slowly.

"Backlists," says Bill Kramer, "are becoming less and less important, those books which have formed the foundation of publishing for the last 100 years."

At Crown, bestsellers are widely advertised to lure customers into the stores. But before they find Lauren Bacall's By Myself or Gnomes or Harold Robbins' latest blockbuster novel shelved at the back of the store, they pass through aisles of sale books called remainders. these are publishers' overstock sold to stores at a significantly reduced discount -- often a nickel or dime on the dollar -- and then marked up to whatever price the bookseller chooses to set. Bargain books, coupled with volume bestseller sales, comprise Crown's profit center.

Still, a number of booksellers believe Crown's profit margin is so thin that it cannot hew to its 35 percent bestseller discount. "I'm sure," says Michael Bialek, who manages his father's Discount Records and Books, "that their prices will be higher once they steer traffic patterns away from other stores."

This scenario has been seen in New York: last fall Barnes & Noble reduced its bestseller discount from 35 to 20 percent.

A Crown manager says, "It's too early to know what's going on in terms of a P-and-L. He [Haft] will try to hold the line as long as he can."

Haft goes further. He insists his current discount policy will not change. "We're thoroughly committed to it," he says, "It's corporate policy and I emotionally believe in it."

Nothing has inflamed the book community more than Crown's advertising campaign. Every Sunday, in the Book World section of this newspaper, Haft is pictured sitting among stacks of bestselling books, promising that "You'll never have to pay full price again" and "If you paid full price, you didn't buy it at Crown."

Above these slogans is a rotating tag line based around a four-word theme -- "books cost too much." For example, "Books cost too much near 17th and Pennsylvania Avenue [Globe Books' precise address], so I opened Crown Books at 17th and G Streets." Or, "Books cost too much in Gaithersburg, so I opened Crown Books in Quince Orchard Plaza."

Such hard-hitting promotion is commonplace in other industries, but in bookselling it is a first.

What roils Haft's competitors is the implication that if the customer is paying full list price, he is shopping unwisely.

"The ads intimate that other booksellers are profiteering, which is simply not the case," says Bill Kramer.

"I got so emotional about the price thing.When we were going to do the ads, I said I wanted to do it. What I'm trying to do is bring the price of books down," Haft adds. "There's no secret to Crown. The unique thing about us is our everyday discounting and advertising to let people know. Prior to Crown's being in the market, you paid $15 for War and Remembrance . Now you pay $9.75. Books do cost too much. I believe that."

Even at the suburban chains, Crown's discount message rings loud and clear. "People call to get the price of a book," says a Dalton manager in Virginia, "and then you hear them whispering, 'We can get it cheaper at Crown,' or, while browsing, they might say, 'We can get that at Crown for less, but we're already here so we might as well buy it.'"

Crown's overall effect on these chains is hard to gauge. "Crown has hurt us less than the fierce competition among the malls," says the manager of a Waldenbooks in Maryland, adding that a healthy mall with commuter parking and mass transportation is the best spur to sales in her store.

"We offer services Crown doesn't, like gift certificates and free gift wrapping," says a Dalton assistant manager in Virginia. "But," she adds, "business is nothing like it was a year ago."

"To say they [Crown] haven't had an effect would be naive," one Brentano's manager says diplomatically. "If I were an independent, I'd talk."

One independent who will talk, and at great length, is Alex Roesell, who opened his Globe Book Shop on 17th and Pennsylvania in 1963 with $3,000 in the bank and a loan from the Small Business Administration.

Crown's second downtown store at 17th and G Streets presented an immediate threat to Roesell's prosperous business (gross sales of $1.25 million in 1977). Roesell started discounting his bestsellers, first 20 percent, then matching Crown's 35 percent, trying to curb his jaywalking clientele.

The Roesell-Haft rivalry has since spilled over into the courtroom. Although the litigation between them has little to do with bookselling strategies, it has become the emblem of Washington's bookstore wars.

At the beginning of 1977, Globe's rental lease expired. Roesell had a number of exchanges with the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, which was leasing out commercial space in its new G Street building. He was quoted $18 to $20 a square foot and figured that, since he was negotiating with a government agency, there was little room for bargaining.

Roesell then signed a new lease with his landlord, Oliver Carr, at a price of $3 to $5 less than what the board sought for its available space. Subsequently, however, Roesell learned that the board had rented space to Crown -- at just under $8 a square foot. His answer was a lawsuit.

"I felt like the lover who had been dismissed," the Globe proprietor said.

Roesell's suit against the FHLBB, which names Crown as a co-defendant, questions the board's authority to lease commercial space and its pricing policy. Why, he wants to know, was he not allowed a competitive bid?

Last September, Crown answered with a $1 million conspiracy suit. "The charge is," according to Roesell, "that I conspired with retailers, wholesalers and trade associations to give Crown a bad name."

"The law is very specific," Haft says of his imbroglio with Globe. "There's nothing illegal about competing."

Matthew Ash, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board's lawyer, said that the Crown lease calls for a minimum rent based on a per-squarefoot charge plus 4 percent of Crown's gross receipts in excess $1 million. "If they [Crown] did well at all, we would meet or exceed what we would have obtained on only a square-foot basis," Ash said.

As this article went to press, Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer of the U.S. District Court ruled that Crown's lease with the bank board is invalid.

"The case is not over yet by any means," Ash told The Washington Post.

Nonetheless, news of the decision has brought muffled jubilation to the bookstore community. "Everybody's delighted, though cautious about what it means," said Discount Books' Amy Gussack.

But Crown's challenge to independent bookselling will ultimately be decided by consumers at the cash register. There, Haft is confident he will prevail.

"After all is said and done, when you can get The Complete Book of Running for $6.50 while others sell it at $10, it doesn't make sense to shop anywhere else. I know people come in and compliment us. For me, that's success."