WHEN the holiday bustle begins in earnest, and your living room is strewn with stuff, and the kitchen floor is crunchy with popcorn, and the children can't settle down long enough to pick up their socks much less help bake cookies - that's the time to drive to a miniature store and see how the little people live.

Hint: They live charmingly.Life is easier on a small scale. Say, a scale where one inch equals one foot. In a doll house the beds are always made, the tables always set, the food always looks fresh. Life is always about to begin, in a doll house.

That's why adults, some adults anyway, love miniatures. And the majority of people who collect doll houses these days are adults, not children.

"Miniatures are the third most popular hobby in the United States, right behind stamp and coin-collecting," says Ron Clanton, who owns Mini-City Highland Drive.

"Miniatures are the fastest growing hobby in the U.S.," says Charles Warren, who owns Miniatures Unlimited in the ZCMI Mall.

"Because of the nature of the hobby, miniatures can be everything for everybody," says Sara Eubank, who owns Enchanted Miniatures in Trolley Square. "If you don't have room for a dollhouse, you can build a room. If you don't have space for a room, you can build a shadow box to hang on the wall.

"There are people in Utah who are in to their houses $300 and those who are in to them $3,000."

Collecting and building miniature houses is a growing hobby in Utah. There were no miniature-only shops in the state 15 years ago and only one five years ago. Now there are three stores. Each has a different character.

Warren's store carries moderately-priced doll house kits and furniture. He also has a good selection of the larger scale Barbie doll houses.

While most of his customers prefer to build their own houses from kits, he says, some want to pay him to do the building and decorating work. Since he spent years in the hardware business and did woodworking as a hobby, Warren has no trouble with the technical aspects. He's learned he enjoys finishing houses.

"This hobby teaches you patience," he says of the craft that requires tweezers and minuscule amounts of glue as well as maximum dexterity. "When you are wiring the lights sometimes you have to use a magnifying glass. You learn not to hurry or you'll make mistakes."

Sara Eubank's store is truly an enchanted place. Decorated for Christmas, as it is, some customers tell her it looks too elegant for their pocketbooks. Not so, she says. "I carry the inexpensive doll house furniture from Hong Kong and whimsical pieces as well as the top-of-the-line handcrafted furniture."

She hasn't enough room in her store to display her entire collection of finished houses, most of which are for sale. If you were one of 8,000 people who saw the miniature display at Ogden's Union Station last weekend you saw Eubank's Stanley House, an exact replica of a 100-year-old house owned by a North Carolina sea captain. The man who built it spent three months in North Carolina researching the project.

Eubank says men make up 80 percent of the membership of miniature clubs on the East and West coasts, while 80 percent of the miniature enthusiasts in Utah are women. She finds most of her male customers come in first with their wives, are fascinated by her miniature blacksmith shop and then, after watching some men building doll houses in the back room, decide the hobby is OK for men.

Eubank's Southwestern miniatures (turquoise jewelry, kachina dolls and cliff dwellings) are among the most unusual items she stocks.

When you enter Mini-City you are greeted by the sound of sawing and the smell of wood shavings. In addition to owning a miniature store, Ron Clanton designs and builds doll houses and ships them to customers all over the country.

His largest Victorian home ("That's with everything finished - lights that work, crystal chandeliers, brass and hardwood, stains on the roof, soot on the chimney . . .") sells for $7,000.

At his store last week, Clanton was finishing the last of 18 houses ordered for Christmas. His store is full of decorated houses - most belonging to other miniaturists - and projects under construction.

In a back room he completes a customer's special assignment: a replica of her childhood home on Arlington Way (complete with a fold-down ironing board in the kitchen). Across the middle of his store sprawls his own project, the Bunker Hill House, a replica of an 1885 Los Angeles mansion.

A quarter-inch scale miniature Christmas village by Arlene Packer is on display in the window. An unusual San Francisco row house, called the Lombard Street Speakeasy, stands near the cash register. Judging from the gambling hall and bar in the basement and the secret room for making bathtub gin, this house must have belonged to a gangster during Prohibition. Clanton explains the elegant home was built by Vince Larkin; he designed and built it (including all the furniture) when he was only 14 years old.

Clanton points to two 20-year-old houses by Mary Ann Odell in another window. "Today you can buy anything you need for a house. Back then you had to make almost everything. Look how she bent the clips from earrings into bathroom faucets."

Clanton knows many Utah miniaturists. He belongs to a miniature club called "Old Salt City." Their joint project is a turn-of-the-century town ("Old Salt City") that now covers three square blocks (in miniature scale). Each member owns at least one house; Clanton owns the firehouse and brand-new old-fashioned fire engine. "Twice a year we put it together and loan it out to someone for a charitable fundraiser," he says. "We'd like to find a permanent place for it on display in a public building."

In the meantime you can see Clanton's firehouse at his store. And you can see Charles Warren's castle at his store. And a dozen charming holiday scenes at Sara Eubank's store.

So if the big life gets too overwhelming this season, now you know where to take a break: in a miniature store.