It happens every Christmas. The excuses of the last-minute gift shopper come together in a perfect holiday storm - or justification.

That report at the office took too long. They made December shorter this year. I don't know anybody's size.

Then the solution hits. A book. Any book.

The last-minute book.

Or so the urban legend goes.

But on the Saturday before Christmas in Center City, defenders of the book as first-class gift - not sheepish, last-minute desperation move - won in a landslide.

"We're actually a little offended that you think we waited till the last minute," joked Jonathan Beyer, 26, a Curtis School of Music voice student shopping yesterday in the Barnes & Noble at 18th and Walnut Streets with a fellow Curtis student, Brandon Cedel, 20.

"I think a gift card is a last-minute gift," countered Cedel, suggesting how low one could stoop.

"We came," Beyer continued, "because my mother is a Scrabble player. So I figured, 'What do you get a Scrabble player?' "

The answer, already found, was Merriam Webster's

The Official Scrabble Player's Dictionary

and

Scrabble Doku

.

One floor up, James Salazar, 40, who teaches American literature at Temple University, proved equally unapologetic about the four books under his arm - with an explanation.

"I always like to give books," he said, "but

because

I always give books, I like to try to get something else. Then if I can't find anything else . . ."

A quick inspection revealed thoughtful choices, among them Kazuo Ishiguro's novel

Never Let Me Go

, for his partner's mother, and

What Hath God Wrought

, for her father, who likes history.

Being a professor, Salazar appreciated both sides of the last-minute-book issue.

"I'm getting them for people who love to read, and they read book after book after book, so it actually is kind of a good thing to get them. . . . But I only give them to people I know who like to read. Because otherwise, I feel it's just this block of paper."

Megan Metz, 31, a MissionStaff recruiter browsing a table nearby, showed the same kind of targeted thinking.

A friend who is pursuing Irish dancing and ballet will get a volume on America's great choreographers. Her stepfather, "who's a nature lover," will receive

The Way of the Tiger

, by K. Ullas Karanth.

A book, Metz reflected, "seems a little more thoughtful than just something to put on the shelf and dust."

And if, when the present is opened, the recipient gets that "Oh, it's a book" look?

"If that's the reaction," Metz said, "then you didn't get the right gift."

Over at Joseph Fox Books, 1724 Sansom St., customers stop by this time of year for the store's combination of excellent taste and new coffee-table tomes. Among Fox's big sellers is artist Maira Kalman's

The Principles of Uncertainty

.

The book-as-poor-last-minute-gift thesis flopped there, too.

"Decidedly not!" replied owner Michael Fox. "On these last couple of days, the books chosen are a

little bit

last-minute. But our customers know

they want a book

."

The only dispute, it seems, involves a little-spoken-of practice: buying used books as Christmas gifts.

Fox, who sells only new books, commented crisply: "Would you buy someone a used toy? A used pen?"

Shopper Gary Kramer, a publishing professional (at Temple University Press), removed his iPod and put in his two cents.

"A used book can be OK," he ventured, "if the used copy has meaning for the person or has a certain history to it."

Even if it's underlined?

Kramer stood his ground.

"It depends on what it is. If it's romantic love poetry, I think that can be very appropriate, even sexy."

At the Book Trader, a used-book shop at 7-9 N. Second St., assistant book seller Bob Arrington seemed less swept off his feet by the idea.

"I don't think there's that much interest in giving used books for Christmas," he said drily, "unless they're collectibles or rare. People don't want to give used material for Christmas."

The Book Trader doesn't even provide gift wrapping this time of year.

And yet. Back in the stacks, fellow employee Charlie Fischer confided that traffic had "picked up this weekend. So I assume that's gift buying, unless people are treating themselves. I don't know, and I don't ask."

The Book Trader's front door favors Fischer's take on the matter.

"Gift certificates available," states a flyer on it. And the store-hours sign offers an aphorism, attributed to "Anonymous," that givers of used books might need to cite when loved ones spot the coffee stain on Page 38, or a Dewey decimal number somewhere on an inside page.

"A book you haven't read," it announces, "is a new book."

Good luck with that.

Contact book critic Carlin Romano at 215-854-5615 or cromano@phillynews.com.