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Q: Unlike their subjects, literary biographies have a terrible tendency to fall rapidly out of favor -- and out of print. Boswell on Johnson and Trotsky on Stalin are still on the shelves, but where can I find Cross on Sterne? Or Clutterbuck on Wordsworth?


A: While the Biography Bookshop (400 Bleecker Street; 807-8655) carries thousands of in-print, recent bios, you won't find the Autobiography of Henry Taylor here; you can count the secondhand offerings on two hands. Surprisingly, no store in Manhattan specializes in the used variety. A few, however, have strong collections at low prices. The main branch of The Strand (828 Broadway, at 12th Street; 473-1452) carries somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 biographies strewn throughout the second-hand emporium. Co-owner Fred Bass says obit writers make requests in droves for certain books to be put aside every time one of the greats edges closer to his eternal reward. Arranged by subject, the Strand's biographies are impossible to tally because they're next to impossible to find. (Hint: Novelists' bios are tucked away in the more general category of "Literature" and will not be found in, say, "Fiction.")

Argosy Book Store (116 East 59th Street; 753-4455) has a comparatively measly 5,000, only 1,500 of which are displayed in the dingy stacks downstairs. But it's still one of the largest selections in the city, and a separate area facilitates browsing. You pay twice what the Strand charges, but most of Argosy's books, even those dating back to the turn of the century, are $20 or less. Browse through the ornate leather-bound "Life and Works" sets kept behind glass upstairs, like the rare four-volume Robert Burns priced at $1,750. Literary bios abound on 18th Street, where the Academy Book Store (10 West 18th Street; 242-4848) competes with Skyline Books across the street (13 West 18th Street; 759-5463). Both have the cramped, industrial look of unrenovated loft basements, and together, they carry about 2,500 bios in designated sections. Academy carries seven or eight bios of Oscar Wilde alone at about $10 apiece. Skyline has more historical bios and a rarity or two, including a first-edition Autobiography of Malcolm X for $600. For a nominal $1 fee, Skyline will also do Internet searches for bookish technophobes -- of whom, by definition, there are many.


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