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April 27, 2002 -- As the weather improves, the prospect of reading al fresco on a stoop, by the river or stretched out on a park bench beckons.

But rather than pop into one of the city's megastores why not nestle into one of New York's more eclectic purveyors of prose?

Here are some of Gotham's finest offbeat bookstores, places that are as much destinations in their own right as stops along the way:

Joanne Hendricks Cookbooks (488 Greenwich St., just above Canal Street; [212] 226-5731): Cookbooks as fodder for leisure reading? It sounds odd, but a good volume of recipes can be as enlightening as a historical novel.

In the basement of a 19th-century row house you can find a treasure trove of unusual, antique and out-of-print books on vittles and libations, each one personally selected by the shop's food-impassioned owner.

Lose yourself in bound copies of Gourmet magazines from the '40s, an early edition of M.F.K. Fisher's "How to Cook a Wolf" or Esquire's 1953 "Handbook for Hosts."

Weekend chefs take note: The store's barn door is locked on Sundays.

Gotham Book Mart (41 W. 47th St., between Fifth and Sixth avenues; [212] 719-4448): Thanks to its collection of new and used books spanning from spirituality to sociology, poetry to punk rock, Gotham has been called the Carnegie Hall of modern literature.

Let yourself get lost in the stacks before departing with a yellowing first-edition of Joseph Heller's "Catch-22," a signed copy of Maxine Kumin's latest volume of poetry or a biography of Billie Holiday.

But be sure to visit soon: The building is about to be sold, and even if Gotham survives, it is unlikely that its patinated spirit will move with it fully intact.

Biography Bookshop (400 Bleecker St., at West 11th Street; [212] 807-8655): As you walk into this West Village shop, the first thing you'll notice is a long table of new releases to your left housing a jumble of life stories as varied as those of art patron Peggy Guggenheim, the American racehorse Seabiscuit and humorist David Sedaris.

A fairly extensive poetry section and a collection of good fiction adds to the store's richness.

Housing Works Used Book Cafe (126 Crosby St., between Prince and Houston streets; [212] 334-3324): If the Gotham Book Mart one day must go, then at least there will still be the Housing Works Used Book Cafe. The gracious, two-level space contains a cafe where guests are encouraged to linger over a stack of books and a cup of tea.

From "Ranching Traditions" to Philip Roth's "Our Gang," "The Garden Sourcebook" to Michael Crichton's "Rising Sun," here you will not only find a broad swath of books on a wide variety of subjects, but you will get them at a fair price.

And all of the profits go into Housing Works' good works helping people living with AIDS.

The Mysterious Bookshop (129 W. 56th St., between Sixth and Seventh avenues; [212] 765-0900): You must descend a few stairs to enter the Mysterious Bookshop, whose logo looks as if it were rendered in blood.

Once inside, you'll find yourself immersed in a vividly illustrated array of contemporary mystery novels and tales of international intrigue.

Venture up a winding staircase and you'll be surrounded by rare and antique mystery books, used dime-store paperbacks and back issues of Sherlock Holmes magazines.

Pick up a 1933 edition of Agatha Christie's "The Hound of Death and Other Stories" or an edition of Sax Rohmer's "Fu Manchu's Bride" from the same year.

If paperbacks better fit your style and budget, choose from "The Man of U.N.C.L.E." series by Michael Arallone or back issues of "Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine."

It's wise to pay for what you want, though. As is stated on a door upstairs, "Nobody shoplifts from a store that knows 3,214 ways to murder someone."

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