For the disabled, it would be tough, but not impossible, to browse the mezzanine-level travel book section at Olsson's Books & Records Dupont Circle store. The tops of the seven-foot shelves throughout the shop would be out of reach. Its three stairs up and three stairs down to the children's book nook where bestseller "Pat the Bunny" beckons.

But during the noonday rush hour, it's a contact sport for even the able-bodied to negotiate the shelves, tables and piles of 37,000 books and 20,000 records, compact discs and tapes that give the store a sort of intellectual messiness.

Buyers and browsers jam the 3 1/2-foot aisles. Customers camp out in the more remote corners of the cozy shop to scan a few stanzas of Sylvia Plath. Bargain hunters jam the three-for-$8.88 cassette-tape bin at the front of the store. Shoppers crowd in front of the tiny "book desk" to pick up and order special requests. The line to the registers can snake through an entire aisle to to the back of the store.

"People like to step over piles of books," said Chris Belcher, the store's assistant manager. "It's a sense of discovery and exploration."

Like thousands of other businesses in the Washington area, Olsson's does not go out of its way to make life difficult for the disabled customers or job applicants who want to buy or sell books and records in any of the company's five stores or its warehouse in Rockville.

In fact, when the occasion arises, the store's management has made extraordinary efforts to carry wheelchairs up stairs or give personal assistance to the disabled book and music lover. Its security system has been revamped to allow wheelchairs to pass through it. Newer stores, such as the ones the company has opened in Bethesda and at Metro Center downtown, have few obstructions, wide aisles and some lower shelving.

Yet, when the new requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act go into effect Olsson's will face a host of ambiguities in deciding how to comply with the new law, or whether it already complies. Modifications to make existing businesses more accessible to the disabled, the new law suggests, are to be "readily achievable" and carried out without much difficulty or expense.

In the case of hiring the disabled, the standard to be met is one of "reasonable accommodation" that does not cause "undue hardship" on businesses, taking into account its size, workforce and the type of facilities it has.

"The Americans with Disabilities Act is a business-oriented law," said Justin Dart, a disabled businessman who is chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. "It was negotiated and will be administered by a business-oriented federal administration. It will be good for business."

John Olsson, chief executive officer of Olsson's Books and Records, hopes a balance will be struck between "what the handicapped person needs in life and the cost of everything else."

He said that if he was forced to defend himself in a lawsuit, for example, it would probably put him out of business. Expensive accommodations for the disabled could be hard on the business.

"Customers can always be accommodated," Olsson said, characterizing the current state of affairs.

The law's effect on hiring will not be a major issue, according to Olsson's and many other businesses, because a disabled person rarely applies for a job. "Never had it happen" is a common response at many smaller and medium-sized businesses.

But Dart explains that it may not be for lack of interest or ability that the 12 million disabled adults who are employable do not try to crack the job market. Instead it is the invisible barriers that keep them out -- lack of transportation, an inaccessible bulding or the emotional effects of repeated rejection.

But could a disabled person do the routine clerical job at Olsson's involving lugging around books, pushing a cart stacked with books, climbing up a library ladder, bending, reaching, talking on the telephone and using a computer?

"It would be impossible to have a clerk in a wheelchair," Olsson said, but not impossible to have a disabled worker do office work. "They would be handled like anyone else. You always try to put people in positions that speak to their strengths."

Under the proposed law, however, there are suggestions that jobs might be restructured for the disabled or that equipment might be modified for their use in existing jobs.

The paramount issues for many businesses is the bottom line, fear of unknown costs and the far reach of the proposed law. With rents high and space precious, some are loath to give up space for ramps. Others wonder what the investment will be to accommodate, say, hearing-impaired or blind workers.

Experts in the provisions of the law say, however, that there are many cheap, creative solutions to the physical challenges raised with hiring and serving the disabled.

Bob Williams, a lobbyist for the United Cerebral Palsy Associations Inc., paid a visit to Olsson's at Dupont Circle in his wheelchair yesterday. He found the store "fairly accessible" and the help friendly.

But he suggests moving a few bookshelves to make the aisles even wider, generating a computer printout of the titles that are inaccessible or creating a ramp, that could be moved, to reach the mezzanine. Another disabled person suggested the store could sell more books to deaf people if it equipped its phones to take their calls.

As for the piles of books stacked around the store, Williams said, "It's good sense to avoid clutter, and it benefits other customers as well."

............AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES...............

Visual impairment................4.3 million..........

Hearing impairment..............10.4 million..........

Deformity/orthopedic............12.8 million..........

Absence of extremity or parts....1.0 million..........

Speech impairment................1.1 million..........

Paralysis(complete or partial)...0.4 million..........

Other impairments................3.7 million..........

2 or more impairments............9.9 million..........

TOTAL...........................43.6 million..........

SOURCE: Congressional Research Service