US & Canada

Retailer sells toilet paper and high brow books

Hillary Clinton, shown here at a book event in New York, signed her memoir at a Costco warehouse Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Hillary Clinton, shown here at a book event in New York, talked about her memoir at a Costco warehouse

Hillary Clinton signed copies of her memoir at Costco last weekend, one of the many high-profile authors who stop at the warehouse on their book tour. The visits underscore the role of Costco as tastemaker in the book world.

Celebrity novelist Oliver North, a former US Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, talked about his new book, Counterfeit Lies, at a store earlier this month.

He and Clinton belong to a group of high-profile authors who are bringing their works to the Costco shopper.

Costco is not widely known for its prose. A retail store that is based on club membership, it features a warehouse-like setting. Customers shop at the store for discounted food and household goods.

Its formula for success has been the same for years - "a narrow selection of goods at mind-bogglingly low prices", says Faye Landes, managing director of Cowen and Company, an investment bank.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Malcolm Gladwell, a bestselling author, has been featured in Costco Connection

The aisles are filled with giant packages of paper towels, granola bars and salad dressing. In one section, though, you can buy books.

Jim Milliot, the editorial director of Publishers Weekly, says about 4% of books sales in the US are from Costco and other large stores such as Target and Kmart. The biggest share of the market, about 28%, is from Amazon.

Like Amazon, Costco offers books at discounted rates. Best-sellers are marked down about 30%, he says.

In addition people who work at Costco - at least some of them - love books. Costco Connection, a monthly "lifestyle magazine", publishes recipes (grilled salmon), personal-finance columns, photography guides - and author profiles.

The story of Costco

1983 - Costco was founded, opening its first store in Seattle

1985 - Costco started their first hot dog cart (a hot dog and a soda cost $1.50)

1993 - Price Club and Costco merged

2014 - stores are now operating in the US, Canada, UK, Mexico, Japan and Australia

Source: Costco, New York Times

The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell and novelist Tom Wolfe have both appeared on the cover. Like Costco members, they have eclectic taste.

In the October 2013 issue of Costco Connection, Gladwell says he likes libraries because all kinds of subjects, such as psychology, sociology and history, are found in the same room.

"So that's how I see the world of ideas: it's all mixed up together," he says. "There's no reason to just hang out in one corner of the intellectual world. You should be able to go all around."

For him and other authors, Costco is a place to hang out. Wolfe shops at Costco, though he does not wear his trademark white suit when he goes.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Legendary novelist Tom Wolfe says that he shops at a Costco warehouse

Based in Issaquah, Washington, Pennie Clark Ianniciello, Costco's book buyer, and her employer are underestimated by many of those who work "inside the special ecosphere of the New York literary community", says James Marcus, the executive editor of Harper's Magazine.

Ianniciello seems unfazed. In contrast to New York tastemakers, she keeps a low profile. She declined, for instance, to be interviewed for this article. "Thanks, Tara," she wrote. "But we wouldn't want to 'give away' any of our secrets!"

She and Costco may not get much attention in literary New York. But she and her colleagues gravitate to the same books that highbrow types are reading - and present them to a mass audience.

Costco Connection recently featured a novel called A Tale for the Time Being. It was written by a Zen Buddhist priest named Ruth Ozeki. A New York Times reviewer says: "Even the book's title shimmers and shifts shape upon study."

For her review in Costco Connection, Ianniciello is straight-forward. She writes: "The story is, quite simply, beautiful."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Books by author Ruth Ozeki, shown with Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, are popular in the warehouses

Another example of literary fiction that is featured at Costco is Mark Helprin's 1983 bestseller, Winter's Tale. The novel is set in New York in the early 1900s, a place where, Ianniciello writes, "magic rolls in like fog".

It would be a stretch, though, to say Costco is taking literary risks.

The books for sale, even the high brow ones, are "media-genic", says Vivien Jennings, founder of a Kansas City store called Rainy Day Books, describing works that attract media attention.

Landes says: "They'll go to the book that sells a lot." Winter's Tale, for example, was recently made into a movie starring Colin Farrell.

Costco ordersfewer books than in the past but the works are on display and independent booksellers say they are glad.

"The more brick-and-mortar places, the better," says Bradley Graham, author of a Donald Rumsfeld biography and co-owner of Politics and Prose, a Washington bookstore.

As Jennings says: "They have their place in the food chain."

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