It's doubtless a sign of the times: a testament to the video 80s or an icon of American Ingenuity. Either way, it's there, planted across on the see-yourself-shiny floor, across the way from Casual Corner and Red Cross shoes.

Tucked away in a corner, prefab and pretty, it's the Fair Oaks Mall Branch of the Fairfax Library, the latest thing in learning, a library boutique. There are about 8,000 volumes in this Plexiglas fishbowl with Lazy Susan stacks, ranging in kind from hardback best sellers and Harlequin romances to action thrillers and Dr. Seuss.

It's esthetically pleasing, too. Little stuffed animals glow in soft, track-light beams. And, says library assistant Janae Harrington, pointing up past her roofless quarters to tiny patches of skylight blue on the mall's ceiling two stories away, "You can always tell what the weather is."

The branch opened in November, primarily "to attrct nonusers, people who use shopping malls and not libraries. It's on their way to Woodies or Hecht's," says Fairfax public libraries spokeswoman Nancy Woodall.

If the can't beat-'em/join-'em approach doesn't work, the staff is ready with the hard sell. In concert with the mall's March theme, "The Working Woman," the branch will display self-help books like "The Woman's Room" and the "Working Mother's Handbook." Later in the year, there will be collaboration with Herman's Sporting Goods on a camping and outdoor program, and a "Spectacular Blooms" show of paper flowers with Hallmark. A Dungeons and Dragons initiation is also planned in cooperation with the What's Your Game store.

The mall branch, library officials say, is the only one like it on the East Coast and is modeled after on in Cincinnati. With the space donated by the mall management, Taubman and Co., it cost the county $43,000 to open and will take about $25,000 a year to operate. Though figures on operating the other branches are not the mall branch is "really an economic way of reaching people."

The branch seems to be catching on quickly, Woodall says. In January, 5,700 books were circulated from its tiny stocks, meaning that 75 percent of its books were actually used. That figure, according to Woodall, "is much higher" than in other branches, where books are more plentiful but many never leave their shelves.

It is quiet in the mall, the silence broken only by the squeal of stroller wheels and the occasional sighs of pregnant women as the ease down into carpeted conversation pits for a rest. But down below the Upper Level Cafe, two patrons and three workers jam the tiny kiosk labeled, in red and white, "The Public Library."

Harrington, a former children's aide at the central branch, bubbles hello to a visitor, as if to say "so nice to see you here, we could use the business." There is a feeling that the customer is always right -- no bun-on-top-of-the-head librarian here to shush you. The atmosphere is light, off the cuff, in keeping with life in the middle of a mall.

Holding one of the branch's three copies of "Errol Flynn, The Untold Story" in one hand and one of nine copies of "Paper Money" in the other, Molly Hardy of Fairfax, who has come to pick out a book for her husband on the way to Garfinckel's, weighs her decision.

"I think I'll take this one," Hardy says shaking "Paper Money" for emphasis. "Maybe he'll read this instead of watching television."