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When you go to a book signing, you have a notion of what to expect:

A desk stacked high with an author's books.

Behind the desk, the writer genially (he n or she n wants to sell books, after all) chatting with customers and signing the books.

Those same customers dodging fast-moving shopping carts stacked high with bales of toilet paper, oildrum- size jars of mayo and enough avocadoes to start a guacamole franchise.

OK, so most bookstores don't feature that last scenario. But most bookstores don't sell as many books as Costco.

Missoula's Neil McMahon was the author behind the desk at the Costco on Reserve Street last week, signing copies of his new novel "Dead Silver," as well as the one that preceded it, "Lone Creek."

When he makes an appearance at an independent bookstore, McMahon said, he'll sign maybe 20 books.

"Thirty would be dynamite." he said.

But he heard that the Billings Costco, which gets books in lots of 60, sold out of all 60 of one of his books in only a few days.

"Just look at the traffic," he said,

indicating the constant swirl of people at the Missoula Costco cruising the wide tables that held what appeared to be an entire bookstore's worth of children's books, cookbooks, how-to books, coffee table books, chick lit and literary fiction.

As that last item indicates, "if you're a sophisticated reader, you can do all right by Costco," said Pete Soper of Helena, a liaison to Costco for HarperCollins Publishers.

About a third of the people buying books last year bought them in places other than bookstores, according to the Simmons National Consumer Survey of 2007. Think Target, Wal-Mart, Starbucks, even your local supermarket n and Costco.

"Publishers like (to sell books) where they can get big hits, and Costco is it now," Soper said.

Another 23 percent bought their books online, according to the Simmons survey.

Factor in book purchases at big-box bookstores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble n and the fact that, according to the survey, the number of people buying books has fallen about 8 percent since 2002 n and it's enough to make an independent bookstore owner feel as though she's starring in a Stephen King novel.

"It's somewhat disappointing to know that Costco is doing their job," said

Barbara Theroux of Fact & Fiction on Higgins Avenue and, more recently, on the University of Montana campus n a merger that helped Fact & Fiction stay in business.

Actually, Theroux has admiring words for Pennie Clark Ianniciello, Costco's chief book buyer and a formidable presence in the publishing world.

"What's happened is that Costco and Pennie have upped the ante and they're asking for more," she said.

Ianniciello, who did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment, writes a Pennie's Picks column that has homed in on books such as "The Brothers K" by Lolo author David James Duncan and Wallace Stegner's "Angle of Repose."

A Wall Street Journal story about Ianniciello credits her backing of Stegner titles for the fact that Costco is the single largest seller of books by Stegner, sometimes referred to as the dean of Western writers.

Those books, by the way, and others are sold at Costco for as much as 40 percent below retail price, something with which independent booksellers such as Theroux can't compete.

On the other hand, said Soper, stores like Fact & Fiction or Chapter One Books in Hamilton offer a level of service not found at Costco.

"The exact things an independent bookstore needs to do to compete with a Costco, or more so, a Barnes & Noble, Barbara Theroux did it all," he said.

Indeed, while Theroux acknowledged the effectiveness of the price war n "I can't compete and win at that game" n she said she often takes calls from people who can't make it to a book signing, and will hold signed books for them, or send them along by mail.

"If you want to get something personalized or want them to mail (a book), that's not going to happen" at a discount store, she said.

Besides, she said, the more people buying books, the better for bookstores in general.

"We'll still sell a helluva lot of books," she said. Back when Barnes & Noble opened in Missoula in 1996, Theroux said authors she'd worked with would call and apologize for signing books there.

"I said, 'Don't feel bad. You'll be reaching another audience,' " she said. At his book signing last week, McMahon said much the same thing.

McMahon said that he, like most authors, doesn't have much of a choice where he signs books.

"It's somewhat of a sensitive issue with the independents," he said. "But like everyone else, if Harper's sends me over here, I go," he said, of his publisher, HarperCollins.

Besides, with publishing firms increasingly cutting back on the book tours that help authors sell their work, every signing counts.

"Most of the good booksellers, like Barbara, I don't think they're threatened by this," McMahon said. "I think they have a loyal clientele. I think most of the people buying books here might not buy them there. I think there's enough to go around."

Assistant city editor Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, or at gwen.florio@missoulian.com.

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