The nation's biggest booksellers, stiffening their spines in the face of terrorist threats, have reversed themselves and declared they will display and sell "The Satanic Verses" after all.

With their statements, B. Dalton, Barnes & Noble and Waldenbooks sought to quell a furious protest over their initial moves to pull the book from their shelves when Iran threatened death to its author and handlers.But it took a statement from President Bush and pleas from their own employees for the chains to budge. In the end, their discomfiture made for an awkward and painful drama in which the shadow of terrorism fell over an unlikely setting, the local bookstore.

"The decision all along has been one of safety. Whether or not to stand on the front lines against terrorism was not a decision Waldenbooks wanted to make on behalf of its 8,500 employees," said spokesman Trace Urdan.

Critics said more than safety was at stake. After initial hesitation, writers held rallies and readings to support author Salman Rushdie and to denounce the bookstore chains for abandoning the freedom of expression.

"Rushdie the individual yields place to Rushdie the symbol of our freedom to write and to publish what we want," said author Diana Trilling.

One result of the controversy - probably unintended by Iran - has been heightened demand for the book.