It was 11 a.m. on a bright, sunny Saturday, traditionally the busiest time at the Natural Reflections book store, and owner Rabia Al Nur was waiting for customers.

An hour passed, and she was still waiting. And waiting.

A year after Al Nur opened the District's only children's bookstore specializing in books for and about black and Hispanic children, her clientele at the Takoma Park site consists of a small group of friends in the education field and people who just stumbled across the store.

At most, she says, she sells a dozen books a week and many weeks not a single volume of her stock, which once contained 900 titles.

A voracious reader as a child, Al Nur said that when she began raising her own four children, she was struck by the fact that the books she was buying for them were not much different than those she had read: They either had no black characters at all or only negative stereotypes such as Little Black Sambo.

Determined to change that for her children and develop in them a pride in their African American heritage, Al Nur began to collect books. Her personal library grew to more than 3,000 titles crammed in boxes and bookshelves in her Fairfax City home.

In time, she became a kind of surrogate librarian, lending books to neighborhood children and recommending reading lists to other mothers. A year ago, at the urging of friends, she decided to fill what she sensed was a desperate need by opening Natural Reflections. "What is more crucial in a city of black children than a bookstore for black children?" she asked.

The result is a bookstore with the inviting look of a cozy library. Fluffy pillows are tossed in the middle of the floor in a casual heap. Several dolls with pitch black or orangy brown faces, which she also sells, sit in the room, as do stacks of puzzles with brown and white faces, in large, child-sized pieces. There are also bright posters with smiling black and Hispanic faces and greeting cards with African verses.

But aside from the muted sounds of her two young children playing nearby, the room is quiet.

"It is like somebody sat me down and said, 'Who cares?' " she said with a sigh.

Al Nur, who is on School Superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins's task force on Afrocentric education in the D.C. schools, said she thinks part of the problem may be that teachers don't expose students to some of the wonderful books available with fictional characters similar to themselves.

"It makes a tremendous amount of difference in how that child views himself," she said.

Finding books geared specifically toward African American and Hispanic children has traditionally been difficult as well, she said. Book sellers and librarians estimate that less than 1 percent of the 4,735 children's books published in 1989 were targeted to blacks.

"Publishers are still rather reluctant to take a chance on a new voice, a new image," said Elisa C. Wren, a librarian in the Woodridge neighborhood in Northeast Washington.

Author Eloise Greenfield, a Michigan Park resident who has published 20 children's books, agreed. "I think that the publishing industry is no different from the rest of our society. Racism still exists."

But booksellers say the scene is improving. Haki Madhubuti, president of the African American Publishers, Booksellers and Writers Association, said sales of children's books are up 118 percent over last year. But sales of multicultural books are up more than 200 percent.

"A lot of us feel that the reason there is such a wide epidemic of crack and young black kids who are not reading . . . is because of a lack of knowledge about self," said H. Khalif Khalifah, a bookstore owner and publisher of "Your Black Books Guide," a newspaper supplement. "There's a tremendous upswing" in parent interest.

"A parent will come in and it's clear to me that she's not a real reader, but she'll buy a book for her child," said Hodari Abdul-Ali, owner of Pyramid Book Store. "I think they realize that if they didn't get {exposure to books about blacks}, at least they should try to help their child get it."

Al Nur said black and Hispanic parents are also more sensitive about the subtexts in traditional classics such as "The Ugly Duckling," where the young duck is ostracized because he is dark and accepted by the others only after he becomes a beautiful white swan. "Kids are thinking subconsciously, 'If I could just get this skin off me,' " she said.

Similar damage, Al Nur said, can be done to Hispanic children by books such as "That Bad Carlos" by Mina Lewiton and "Angelo the Naughty One" by Helen Garrett, which cast Hispanic children in roles of troublemakers.

So why aren't parents flocking to Natural Reflections? Recently, Al Nur cut back her operation to Thursday through Sunday.

She blames an out-of-the-way site and her shortage of money for promotion. But she also said too many parents continue to believe these books are just too difficult to find, which is why she opened her shop.

Her message to black and Hispanic parents is that there is a growing wealth of reading options available to help foster their children's identity and pride of heritage. But educators add a caveat.

They say enlightened white parents should be exposing their children to books with black and brown characters, too, because it teaches them that there are other types of people in the world.

"Children should read about everybody," said Charlotte S. Smutko, the assistant to the coordinator of children's services for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. Besides, "a good book is a good book."