Michael Chessler is a mountain climber with a lifelong love of books -- not an unlikely combination of interests, really. What is unusual, however, is that he has turned his two hobbies into a rapidly growing business. He operates a travel-book store, now in its sixth year, that offers customers one of the most comprehensive selections of guides found anywhere to the mountainous regions of the world.

As a mountaineer, he naturally located his shop in the mountains -- more precisely the foothills of the Rocky Mountains outside Denver -- although this was hardly the most accessible of sites to attract walk-in shoppers. No matter. He produced a substantial catalogue, which he advertised in mountaineering magazines, and now he makes most of his guidebook sales through phone and mail orders. Today, he employs a staff of six.

His firm, Chessler Books of Evergreen, Colo., is one of at least 14 travel-book stores and travel-related businesses in this country that offer travel books through catalogues. Like Chessler, some specialize in limited areas of travel. Others offer a broad range of travel guides and literature. Book Passage of Corte Madera, Calif., which claims to be the largest mail-order operator, lists 50,000 travel titles in its inventory.

The demand for travel guides for almost anywhere in the world has mushroomed in the past decade, and numerous bookstores specializing in travel have opened to fill the demand. For some of the larger stores, catalogue sales became a logical extension of their business. The catalogues provide a convenient way for travelers to learn about -- and buy -- the latest books and guides, many of which are not available in ordinary bookstores. Some of the stores do half or more of their business through catalogue sales throughout the country.

Chessler's firm is somewhat unusual in that the subject matter of his inventory is so specific. Most catalogue operations sell a wide range of travel books, although several do highlight certain specialties in which they are particularly good. For example:

Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif., is proud of its business-travel shelf. It has a good selection of guides for business travelers to Japan.

Carousel Press of Albany, Calif., features guides for family travel, including books for children to carry along.

The Literate Traveller in Beverly Hills, Calif., sticks mostly with books that provide historic, artistic and cultural insight into a destination.

The Globe Corner Bookstore in Boston stocks a large collection of New England books, including inn guides.

Travel Books Unlimited in Bethesda sells language tapes and related materials in about 80 foreign languages. It also has a large collection of books on Eastern Europe and Africa.

The British Travel Bookshop in London focuses on England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Forsyth Travel Library in Shawnee Mission, Kan., is a specialist in worldwide rail travel -- particularly for the rail network in Europe. It is a source for the monthly Thomas Cook European Timetable.

The Traveller's Bookstore in New York carries a good selection of novels and nonfiction set in or related to popular travel destinations.

Maps, travel videos and travel accessories also are available from some of the catalogue firms. All but one take phone orders, and most accept credit-card charges so that the merchandise can be on its way within a day or two -- or immediately, if necessary. Several accept orders by fax machine. A small fee for shipping and postage is charged.

Most firms say they will offer book recommendations over the phone to someone who doesn't have a catalogue but is looking for a good guide, say, to Czechoslovakia or Chile.

Unusual as it is, Chessler's firm has yet another distinction. It deals in used books about mountains and mountaineering. Chessler's customers sometimes will buy a book -- many are not available in libraries -- and sell it back to him after they have read it. He publishes annual catalogues for both new and used books.

The used books are not necessarily cheaper than the new ones. Some are rare editions that come from the collections of famed mountaineers. The highest price he has ever received for a book is $7,000, for an account of the first ascent of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the European Alps. In French, it was published in 1786.

Several of the bookstore owners make a point of seeking out hard-to-find guides that may be self-published or come from a small publishing house that has limited marketing resources. Chessler is an example. On the subject of mountains and mountaineering, "We sell everything we can find in English," he says, and he even stocks a few books in foreign languages if the subject is not well covered in English.

The following firms publish catalogues of travel guides and other travel literature. Most catalogues are free, but a couple of firms charge a small fee.

Chessler Books: Owner Michael Chessler considers his selection of mountaineering, exploration and polar books, maps and videos to be "the largest in the U.S.A., and perhaps the world." He offers about 1,600 titles that are in current publication and thousands of others that are out of print. Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain, is the subject of about 200 titles, including "Everest: A Mountaineering History" by Walt Unsworth, a new edition (1990) of the classic history.

In Chessler's inventory are mountaineering guides, large gift picture books, accounts of mountain ascents, classic travel narratives and guides to mountain vacations. He is also a source for hard-to-get maps of the Himalayas, the Andes and the Alps. His customers include experienced mountain climbers as well as amateur trekkers joining escorted tour groups on an adventurous holiday. Many of his books also appeal to armchair travelers, he says.

Chessler Books, P.O. Box 4267, Evergreen, Colo. 80439, 1-800-654-8502 and (303) 670-0093. American Express, Visa and MasterCard charges are accepted.

Book Passage: With 50,000 titles, Book Passage claims to be the nation's largest travel-book supplier. Its free catalogue, published twice annually, lists all the major guidebook series, such as Access, Birnbaum's, Lonely Planet, Berlitz, Michelin, Fodor's guides, Blue Guides, Insight, Baedecker's, American Express and Frommer's guides.

In addition, the firm has developed a large inventory of business-travel books. Among its customers, says president Elaine Petrocelli, are companies sending sales forces to foreign cities and corporate planners investigating convention sites. Titles are as diverse as "The Do's and Taboo's of International Trade" by Robert Axtell and "Making It Abroad: The International Job Hunting Guide" by Howard Schuman.

Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, Calif. 94925, 1-800-321-9785 and (415) 927-0960. American Express, Visa and MasterCard are accepted.

Carousel Press: A small publishing house, Carousel Press has a handful of family-oriented guidebook titles to its credit. In addition, it offers about 200 other titles on family travel in its annual catalogue. Among them are guides to lodgings and restaurants where children are not just tolerated but are welcomed. Also included are easy-to-carry books to entertain children while they are traveling. Carole Terwilliger Meyers calls her work a labor of love.

Carousel Press is one of the two catalogue firms in this list that do not operate a bookstore.

Carousel Press, P.O. Box 6061, Albany, Calif. 94706, (415) 527-5849. Visa and MasterCard are accepted for mail and phone orders. For a catalogue, send a long self-addressed envelope with 45 cents postage (or include $1 for handling).

The Literate Traveller: Owner Nancy Heck publishes an annual catalogue of guidebooks, essays and narratives aimed at travelers with historical and cultural interests in the places they are visiting. The list is not comprehensive; rather it is limited to the books she believes are worthy of recommendation. Each entry is accompanied by a brief review.

Among her titles are "The Bookshops of London" by Martha Pease -- "for the lover of books"; "Yugoslavia: Monuments of Art" by Lazar Trifunovic -- a guide to East European architecture; and "Biblical Holy Places" by Rivka Gonen -- a look at religious sites in Turkey, Italy, Greece, Egypt and Israel.

Heck's is the second of the two catalogue firms that do not operate a bookstore.

The Literate Traveller, 8306 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 591, Beverly Hills, Calif. 90211, (213) 398-8781. Phone orders and credit cards are not accepted -- at least for now. The charge for the 50-page catalogue is $2.

The Globe Corner Bookstore: Like Book Passage, the Globe Corner Bookstore stocks a wide range of travel titles -- about 25,000 -- including the popular guidebook series as well as travel narratives and other travel literature. It also seeks out unusual guides from the small publishing houses, according to marketing manager Mark Lamphier. And, given its location, it has developed a large selection of books and maps on all aspects of travel in New England. The firm publishes an annual catalogue.

The Globe Bookstore, 1 School St., Boston, Mass. 02108, 1-800-358-6013 and (617) 523-6658. American Express, Visa and MasterCard are accepted.

Travel Books Unlimited: Another comprehensive source of travel guides, maps and literature, this Bethesda bookstore also has added "Language Center" to its name, reflecting the expansion of this facet of its business. It carries dictionaries, tapes and other language materials in 80 languages, according to owner Rochelle Jaffe.

Jaffe's 90-page catalogue is distributed every 18 months. It includes a good selection of the more than 26,000 titles in stock at the bookstore, among them all of the major guidebook series. Jaffe has built a particularly strong library of books on East Europe and Africa.

Travel Books Unlimited, 4931 Cordell Ave., Bethesda, Md. 20814, 951-8533. American Express, Visa and MasterCard are accepted.

Sidney Kramer Books: A downtown Washington bookstore, Sidney Kramer Books issued its first travel-book catalogue, "Books for the Traveller," in April. It lists about 1,200 titles, among them most of the major guidebook series, according to catalogue editor Mimi Morris. Because of the bookstore's location near the World Bank, it has developed a large collection of guides on foreign destinations.

Sidney Kramer Books, Mail Order Book Service, 11910-U Parklawn Dr., Rockville, Md. 20852, 1-800-423-2665 and 881-3505. American Express, Visa and MasterCard charges are accepted.

The British Travel Bookshop: The several hundred titles in the bookshop's catalogue offer a broad range of information for travelers headed for Great Britain. The Manhattan bookstore stocks most of the maps and other guides published by the British Automobile Association as well as numerous guides to hotels and other lodgings.

British Travel Bookshop, 40 W. 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10019, (212) 765-0898. American Express, Visa and MasterCard are accepted for purchases that total $20 or more.

Forsyth Travel Library: This travel shop caters primarily to travel agents, but it also does a large business in rail guides for the general public.

Its biggest seller is the Thomas Cook European Timetable, a monthly guide to Europe's rail schedules. The timetable costs $19.95 plus $3 in postage. And no, you don't have to buy one each month to keep abreast, says owner Stephen Forsyth, since most of the schedules seldom change. The big difference is between off-season and summer timetables. Summer rail service is more frequent.

Forsyth's rail specialty also extends to guidebooks on rail travel in Europe and elsewhere, timetables for other continents, maps and videos. An annual catalogue is available.

Forsyth Travel Library, P.O. Box 2975, Shawnee Mission, Kan. 66201, 1-800-367-7984 and (913) 384-3440. Visa and MasterCard are accepted.

The Traveller's Bookstore: Partners Jane Grossman and Candace Olmsted opened their midtown Manhattan shop eight years ago, making them among the first of the bookstore operators specializing in travel books. From the beginning, they emphasized fiction and nonfiction works as part of what Grossman calls "the fun of travel." They continue to be very selective about the books they offer, sorting through what is available to choose those they consider the best.

Among the books the two are recommending this summer are the five Cadogan guides to Italy -- "Northeast Italy," "Northwest Italy," "South Italy," "Tuscany & Umbria" and "The Italian Islands." The Cadogan series is rich in historical and cultural details.

The firm's annual catalogue lists about 800 titles, all of them accompanied by a brief review. In addition to the Cadogan guides, entries for Italy include such carry-along reading matter as "The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall" by Christopher Hibbert and "Playing Away" by Michael Mewshaw, humorous essays on life in Rome. "We've never read any other pieces which capture that never-ending commedia dell'arte of life in the Eternal City with as much glee and sharpness of vision," write Grossman and Olmsted in their catalogue.

The Traveller's Bookstore, 22 W. 52nd St., New York, N.Y. 10019, (212) 664-0995. American Express, Visa and MasterCard are accepted.

The Complete Traveler Bookstore: As its name suggests, the Complete Traveler Bookstore in Manhattan offers a wide selection of travel literature, including major guidebook series, memoirs, narratives, gift books and maps. An annual catalogue is available.

The Complete Traveler Bookstore, 199 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016, (212) 685-9007. American Express, Visa, MasterCard and Diner's Club are accepted.

Le Travel Store: Le Travel Store's catalogue includes guidebook series and travel accessories.

Le Travel Store, 295 Horton Plaza, San Diego, Calif. 92101, 1-800-854-6677 and (619) 544-0005. Visa and MasterCard are accepted.

Easy Going: An apt name for a travel shop in often laid-back Berkeley. More than a bookstore, Easy Going also offers travel accessories, luggage and backpacks suitable for air and rail travel. A selection of these items appears in Easy Going's accessories catalogue, currently available. Travel books will be included in the fall catalogue.

Easy Going, 1400 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, Calif. 94709, 1-800-233-3533 and (415) 843-3533. Visa and MasterCard are accepted.

Phileas Fogg's Books and Maps for the Traveler: This bookstore distributes a variety of travel-book catalogues, each for a different region of the world. About 9,000 titles are available. The widest choice is in guides to Great Britain and France, and especially to London and Paris.

Phileas Fogg's Books and Maps for the Traveler, 87 Stanford Shopping Center, Palo Alto, Calif. 94304, 1-800-533-3644 and (415) 327-1754. MasterCard is accepted.