Helene Hanff had it all wrong, curled up in her Manhattan apartment, sending away to a book seller at 84 Charing Cross Road in London for her beloved used books. So she parlayed that charming transatlantic correspondence into a bestselling book ("84 Charing Cross Road"), a movie, numerous television productions, sequels, pre-quels and who knows what all. I still say she's missing out on the real joy of used book collecting -- visiting used bookstores in person.

Hunting out local used bookshops is a great way to get to know a city, especially if you're the kind of traveler who steers clear of the usual tourist attractions. Used bookstores tend to be located in offbeat areas, like old downtown districts where outmoded buildings have yet to undergo trendy restorations, or next to the secondhand clothing shops and antiques stores that signal a neighborhood in transition. On the wrong side of the tracks or on the snug side of a harbor, used bookstores tend to occupy the heart of a town, if not its center.

Detroit has one of America's most unglamorous downtowns. Yet, right on Lafayette Boulevard, not far from what's left of the Motor City's business district, you'll find John K. King Used and Rare Books, a palace of pleasure if you love old books. There are four entire floors of them: fiction, children's, art, aviation, alchemy and Zen; books of gardening tips, home decorating hints, cars and cats -- more than 600,000 volumes in well-ordered bookcases in clearly designated subject areas, alphabetized by author. Even if you're not a dedicated secondhand book hound, a visit to King's leaves you feeling that Detroit still has something to offer the tourist.

Helene Hanff, lucky lady, doesn't have to venture all the way to Detroit to find a bookstore that leaves her feeling good about a city. Gotham Book Mart is right on her midtown Manhattan turf -- on West 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. For nearly 70 years, Gotham has specialized in literature and the arts, catering over the years to such luminaries as William Carlos Williams, Henry Miller and T.S. Eliot, to name a few customers who have squeezed along its dusty aisles in search of good used books. Drop into the Gotham for, say, a volume of Dorothy Parker's poetry, carry it a couple of blocks to the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street,sit at a well-worn round table for a cup of tea and a good read, and you're experiencing Manhattan in a way that few tourists do.

As long as you're browsing on the Eastern Seaboard, you may as well venture up the coast to Massachusetts. Boston and Cambridge, with college connections and literary heritages that go a long way back, are chock-full of used bookstores. If you could go to only one, it would have to be Boston's Brattle Bookshop, the successor to America's oldest antiquarian bookstore. The original store and its entire stock of rare books, letters and autographs were destroyed by fire in 1980. Undaunted, owners George (now deceased) and Kenneth Gloss rebuilt from the ashes, and the new shop on West Street, just one block south of historic Boston Common, is still the place to look for the finest in out-of-print books, first editions, signed copies, autographs and maps.

Traveling to Los Angeles? The city is a natural haven for bookhounds with show biz in their blood. Larry Edmunds Book Shop, 6658 Hollywood Blvd., and Book City, across the street at 6627, are both just a few blocks down the star-studded sidewalk from Mann's Chinese Theater.

Of course, like the author of "84 Charing Cross Road," you may prefer to stay home and let a faraway bookseller fill your bookcases. True, you'll manage to avoid risking neck and limb on rickety ladders, inhaling lungfuls of dust and hauling home luggage heavy enough to cause baggage handlers to consider a career change. But you'll also miss the chance to pick out just the right copy of just the right book. The vintage 1936 copy of Willa Cather's "Death Comes for the Archbishop," with illustrations by Harold Von Schmidt, was just the right copy of just the right book when I came across it in San Diego, in tiny, crowded Otento Used Books (now Joseph Tabler Books on Fifth Avenue).

Cather's books, even the illustrated editions, aren't hard to come by, and there were two of this particular edition sitting side by side on the "literature" shelf. Both were in excellent condition, both were reasonably priced, but only one had this inscription on its flyleaf:

As a belated birthday gift to Dear Charlene -- I have read that the author was converted to the Catholic faith while making the research necessary to the writing of this lovely book. As I read and discussed it again last summer with a class in American literature, I felt its great beauty and inspiration and power all over again. I hope that you and dear Stella will enjoy reading it and talking it over. With my love, Aunt Ruth. October 1953.

That's the copy I bought. Not only to reread one of my favorite books and, like Aunt Ruth, feel its great beauty and power all over again, but also because I like the idea of happening upon a tiny slice of someone else's life, 37 years later. Can't you just picture Aunt Ruth? A maiden lady, perhaps, an English professor at a small college. I can see her setting out in her 1951 Dodge Coronet, picking up niece Charlene from the nearby private school she attends, and then taking her and her roommate Stella out for a birthday lunch, complete with beautifully wrapped gift book. I don't like to think how Charlene let "Death Comes for the Archbishop" slip out of her library at some point over the years, but I'm convinced she still holds fond memories of her generous and thoughtful aunt.

Catching snippets of a previous book owner's life, feeling friendly about a city, rubbing shoulders after the fact with literary lights who have trod the same dusty paths -- these are some of the reasons why shops full of previously owned books are high on my travel list. Following the dusty trail of used bookstores is the only way to go. Beverly S. Narkiewicz is a freelance writer in Southern California. WAYS & MEANS

Book City, 6627 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, Calif. 90028, (213) 466-2525.

Brattle Bookshop, 9 West St., Boston, Mass. 02111, (617) 542-0210.

Larry Edmunds Book Shop, 6658 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, Calif. 90028, (213) 463-3273.

Gotham Book Mart, 41 W. 47th St., New York, N.Y. 10036, (212) 719-4448.

John K. King Used and Rare Books, 901 W. Lafayette Blvd., Detroit, Mich. 48226, (313) 961-0622.

Joseph Tabler Books, 3817 Fifth Ave., San Diego, Calif. 92103, (619) 296-1424.