The seventh and last Harry Potter book – “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” – was released with great sizzle-buzz on June 22nd,, 2007, at the witching hour of 12:01 a. m. on a hot summer Friday night when the half-seen cloud-moon promised spooky things.
Over 20 million copies of the latest installment were printed in the US alone, with many tens of millions more published around the world. The media blitz – including a “Special Collector’s Issue” of “Entertainment Weekly” – and genuine readers’-of-all-ages excitement were turning this into an event to exceed any book debut in history, including the June 2005 release of the sixth book, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”.
On that summer day I was in New Orleans with my professor wife Linda, who was on a panel at a film conference. I had been visiting antiquarian bookstores that morning in the French Quarter, then had taken the St. Charles streetcar across the pre-Katrina’d city, and was browsing the cozy, independently-owned, new-books Maple Street Bookstore.
The staff was flying around, preparing the store for the dozens/ hundreds? of Potterworld fans arriving soon by streetcar, flying car, or maybe even floo powder. How many Hondas bringing the family to the Harry Happening that night would be teenager-dubbed “The Hogwarts Express”? The energy and spirit in the store, and the manager’s drawled, gracious invitation almost made me want to come back that night for the 12:01 release of Book Six. But we had a plane to catch.
Two years later, for book number seven, bookstores and libraries across the country were once again staging elaborate Potter Parties in the hours leading up to the 12:01 a.m. moment when officially the books could be sold.
At our Acorn Bookshop, we’ve sold dozens of used copies of PotterPages at the store since Harry first matriculated into Hogwarts in 1997. I’ve read all six with enjoyment and was looking forward to number seven, wanting to read for myself what finally happens to Harry and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named – The Dark One, Lord Voldemort.
At the Barnes & Noble – one of “The Chambers of Discount Pricing”, as Stephen King called them – located at Five Points in Upper Arlington, the party blasted off at 4p.m., when the bookstore began handing out lettered wristbands to the impatiently waiting crowd. The wristbands ultimately proved to be like the Hogwarts sorting hat – your assigned letter would determine which midnight line was to be yours, and consequently how long you would have to stand in line to get your book.
Linda and I decided to attend that nearby Barnes & Noble party as cultural voyeurs, amateur cultural anthropologists, going not to buy the book – I could pick one up anytime over the weekend when the lines would be shorter than a wizard’s wand – but to be part of the excitement of a rare moment of nationally-shared focus on a positive event – and in a bookstore!
Not a shared moment of tragedy like 9/11, but something so big and wonderful that millions were caught up in the enormity of it all and wanted to be part of it, like any great celebration. It was party time around the world: Harry #7 would fly in on broomsticks or in the beaks of UPS owls just after the hour of spells began. Linda and I wanted to just put on invisibility cloaks and observe the Ritual of Acquisition.
Pulling into the bookstore’s parking lot at 11:00, we were stunned to find it already full, save for a little patch of grass that the red Civic would look good on. And what cop/city official would act like the books’ Dementers and ruin the excitement of the night by ticketing or towing a small, inoffensive Honda, especially with its license plate: “READ ON” ? They should be paying us to park up front with that declarative literary message.
Obviously something extraordinary was happening. Seeing all the cars parked everywhere and excited people streaming for the door was a shot of adrenaline – the evening’s volume just got cranked a little higher and to hell with the neighbors. It was PotterMania!
In my 43 years as a bookseller, I’ve never seen what our astounded eyes glimpsed that night in that bookstore when we opened the door to MagicWorld. Diagon Alley had sprung from page to life, and Hogwartians were there to buy something at least as important as a wand or an owl – the first new Harry Potter in two long years, and the last one ever.
The store was swarming with hundreds of animated people. Grandparents and toddlers intermixed with gaggles of antic teenagers who were maniacally clumped together, unable to hold still. Many were in admirable costume: witches, Weasleian redheads, and Harries abounded. There were more black pointy hats poking into the air than all the steeples in England. Long flowing capes threatened to inadvertently cocoon-wrap small Arlingtonian house-elves in their wake.
We found it difficult to browse, having to step around the readers sprawled on the floor everywhere. Those that couldn’t control their excitement were zooming around the store as though they were on the Quiddich field. Even several of Linda’s university students were there for the book…but too cool to be in costume.
Though we were there to focus on people, not books, sometimes the temptation to look down at all the well-displayed titles was too much, and our eyes were drawn from the waiting wizards to the literary wares every once in a while.
At 11:15 the first loud-speakered announcement about the within-the-hour release brought squeals of joy and peals of maniacal anticipation from the crowd. Every few minutes the store’s MC would excitedly announce in an infomercial-sincere voice that folks wearing a certain lettered band were to assemble at the front of the store, and a large group of PotterPeople would swarm through the crowded aisles like the Dark-Forest-bound spiders in Book Two. They were led off to a corner of the B&N web, snared by their impatient greed for the book. At each announcement, some teens – old enough to normally refrain from such exuberance – would literally jump up and down when their letter was called, like their Catholic grandmothers winning a Bingo game.
I was impressed at how well the logistics of handling such a crowd were organized and executed. I told a manager that as a career bookseller with exacting standards, I seldom paid compliments on how well a bookstore was organized, but I wanted to let these folks know that their smooth effort was noticed and appreciated. Barnes & Noble would have won the Hogwarts House Cup this evening.
Just before midnight came the announcement: “For those of you here not for the Harry Potter book but do wish to make a purchase, it would be a good idea to check out now, or you will have to go to the back of the line.” By now all the store’s corners were filled with highly-anticipatory Potterites, so the aisles were nearly empty. We drifted to the register to buy a Laura Lippman mystery and a DK Eyewitness Guide to New York City, where Linda and her two sisters would be having a fabulous girls’ weekend soon, to celebrate how age 50 is the new 40.
At midnight, Barnes & Noble employees began a countdown chant, “Ten, nine, eight…” Quickly from all the bookcase-lined and overcrowded corners the assembled fans – which is short for “fanatics” – picked up the call: “Seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, Happy Harry Potter!” The place went nuts as the final instructions were boomed to the seething mob. With a minute to go to the sanctioned sell-time, the names of door-prize winners were called, their names having been collected earlier in the day when they were wristband-branded. The highly-desired prize was two-fold: a free copy of “Deathly Hallows”, and without having to wait in line for it.
Therese Terndrip was there partying on behalf of the Upper Arlington Library. They had ordered 62 copies, but were shorted 2. Therese – a former Acorn Bookshop Nut (employee) – had been wrist-banded earlier in the day, and was nearly as animated as the much-younger band-wearers.
And she won!
“I’m keeping this one for myself!” she gushed, as a witch-costumed employee handed the exultant librarian the very first copy of “Deathly Hallows”, as those at the head the agitated line – roped off from the awaiting, book-surrounded cashiers – drooled like Hagrid’s dog Fang.
All six cash registers across the front of the store were staffed and ready. Burly, young staff members were behind the anxious cashiers, unpacking and stacking #7 with the bright orange dust jacket.
At 12:01, to great cheers, the black-robed B&N Headmistress stepped aside, lifted her ebony wand, and let the front of the very long line run to the counter with a scream of joy. The cashiers shouted, “How many?” as the joyful approached, and reached for the high-stacked desiderata. Most grinning addicts bought single copies; a few took several. Buyers were moved with amazing quickness through the purchase process, and the hours-long line which snaked around the entire perimeter of the store, out the door, and around two sides of the building to the shadows of the dumpsters, began to slither forward. By the time those outsiders reached for their wallets, some in the front of the line would be home, many chapters into the book of revelations.
I stepped to the bustling counter and asked a book-stacker – over the witch-hatted head of an unsmiling cashier – if I could have one of the just-emptied Potter-labeled boxes. “Sure, that’s one less for us to deal with,” he agreed, and began to reach the cardboard souvenir over the busy cashier’s head to me.
She stopped us cold with a voice that would have chilled butterbeer, “We’re not allowed to give out the boxes!” The guy looked at her, looked at me, shrugged and mimed dropping it on her pointed head as he pulled it back. I should have gone to another cashier who was less corporate-minded.
I went over and asked line-controlling Witchy Woman about the event. She was busy dealing with a hyperactive, possessed crowd, but did say that all of the store’s employees – about 40 – were called in for the huge event. They seemed as dedicated as house-elves; some were in costume – as she was – at their own expense. She would have made a perfect Headmistress, simultaneously welcoming and severe.
The bookstore had become the Ministry of Magic! It was packed with frenzied Potter-freaks waiting for a fix of a specific literary drug.
It takes a phenomenon like Harry Potter to make bookstores this desirable. Nights like this won’t bring back the lost, lamented, local independent bookstores like Nicklebys Bookstore/Café of Grandview, but it will serve as a reminder of the command that written words can have of us. Books hold as much excitement and entertainment as any video game or DVD, MP3 or Ipod, if the person is willing to scale back the visual/aural world and expand their imagination to a richer universe. Text-inspired headtrips have for centuries been act-like-an-idiot addictive, and millions of international Harry Potter fans were adding an exclamation to that point tonight: buying books in bookstores at midnight – a bookseller’s midsummer night’s dream.
Caught up in the excitement myself, I decided I’d like to have a copy purchased that significant night, though I wasn’t willing to stand in a line even longer than the visa application line at the American embassy in Bucharest in 1984. And those lined-up, semi-patient, Harry-dedicated readers with their eyes popping out were not bribable.
“Giant Eagle carries books,” I told Linda, “maybe they’ll have the Harry Potter.” After a last good-for-the-bookseller’s-soul look at the Potterphiles, we retrieved our unticketed car and drove down Kingsdale Center to the 24-hour supermarket.
“Do you have the new Harry Potter book,” I asked the glazed-eyed cashier at 1a.m. She blinked at me, then looked over at the cluttered office where cigarettes and money orders are dispensed, got a short nod in return from a supervisor, then informed me, “We have just one copy left,” lifting up a stack of paper sacks off the end of the bagging belt to reveal the familiar orange cover with a white banner declaring 40% off.
“Yes!” I inadvertently exclaimed, and handed her my bankcard to buy the book and get Giant Eagle fuel perks for Potter.
While she was ringing up the sale, a young woman clearly Potter-potted with a caped costume and the painted face of a sorceress stepped into the customer chute with eye-and-nose-level boxes of Snickers and Hersheys and Tic Tacs leading her to the TV-Guide’d register where she asked hopefully, pleadingly, “Do you have the Harry Potter book?”
Not immediately replying, the cashier with “Junia” on her nametag handed me the receipt to autograph under the Express Lane sign while announcing that I was now entitled to $2 off each gallon of gas at Getgo. As she turned back to the register she again looked over to the office. This time there was a pause. Two employees behind that counter looked at each other and then glanced below the counter. Finally one of them reached for something, and came up with the already-scarce book. Apparently some of the employees took advantage of being there when the books were first sold at midnight and set several aside for themselves. But one young office woman was kind enough to wave her metaphorical wand and magically create a coveted copy, generous enough to give up her own book to this young witch with money in her hand and desperation in her voice.
We two Book Seven owners each went home, having stated our intent to read it immediately, lucky to have been to the big book party and to have scored a Potter without waiting in the serpentine line.
The next day at Acorn, a Saturday, we put signs on the door that it was “Happy Harry Day”, and we’d give a 10% discount to anyone wearing or carrying anything related to Harry Potter, and verbally welcomed each customer with, “Happy Harry Day!” We got a lot of confused, wary looks at that, but some caught the meaning right away, especially when they spied the two displays of the previous Rowling books facing the entrance.
We didn’t give out any discounts that day, but many folks were talking about the new book, including some like me who had read late into the night, though not finishing it. The older books in the series sold well, and we did field several phone calls looking for copies of #7.
I kept expecting someone who had spent the night finishing the book to walk in and blurt out the hush-hush ending. There had been no media leaks that we knew of about the future of Potterworld, and I was ready to escort anyone outside if they were as insensitive as the Dark Lord’s legions, ready to reap our innocence.
An attractive, slender, 6’ blonde with two small children – that all had to pee the moment they were in the store – came to the counter with a book she’d picked up off our Harry Potter display: “Looking for God in Harry Potter.
“My sister hasn’t even accepted Christ as her Savior yet, so maybe this might lead her to Him, because she loves the Harry Potter books.”
I asked her if she’d read any of the books, and she shook her head and said, “No, and I won’t let my children read them either. I don’t think they’re as bad as some church people say, but I’m nervous about letting impressionistic minds read about magic and witches when we’re reading them Bible stories every week.”
Pope Benedict XVI agrees, suggesting that the Potter books are “subtle seductions” that could “deeply distort Christianity in the soul” of young people.
Just then two pre-teens came in with their ball-capped father. They spotted the piled-up early Potters, and one exclaimed joyfully up to him, “They do have them here, Daddy! I just knew they would!” They took hardback copies of Books 1 and 2, and each kid reached in front of the lecturing evangelical anti-Potter woman and with a large grin dropped a crumpled $20 bill onto the counter to cover the $15 and tax.
The tall blonde gathered up her children, the book to save her sister, and left without a word – but well-peed.
72 million copies of “Deathly Hallows” sold in the first 24 hours, including 8 million in the U.S. The richest woman in England cha-ching’ed at least $200 million into her rainy day fund.
Four days after the wild release parties, a book scout came in with books to sell and a gift: an empty DEATHLY HALLOWS box! He said he’d just asked at Borders and had been given it without a lecture that it was against company policy.
Later that day a young couple and their five- year-old boy came into the store and headed for the Children’s section. Soon mother and child were sitting on the floor, picturebooks scattered in a semi-circle around them. If I hadn’t been involved with buying some collectible 19th century books I would have photographed the floored readers, as I have with other families caught up in looking at books in the store.
Soon, though, the young boy began wandering about, while mom continued to pick out several books for him – and her as well? It’s easy for adults to get lost in the wonderfully illustrated tales that are marketed for children, but to adults that buy them.
Unlike a little girl that had been in the store an hour earlier who couldn’t leave the dangling door bells alone and kept shaking them and laughing loudly as they were ringing, this boy was quietly walking all around, looking into corners and up on shelves with obvious curiosity.
The next time I saw him he was carrying under his arms two of the stuffed white owls that my colleague Christine had brought in for the Harry Potter display. He went over to his engrossed mother and dropped to his knees with an ease I can only remember.
His father was standing with his back to the Science Fiction paperbacks, obviously not a reader, as he was not looking at books at all, just patiently waiting for his wife and son to pick out the books they wanted.
Catching his eye, I leaned over the displayed Thomas Friedman books and quietly asked if he thought his son knew that the owls weren’t for sale, that they were part of our store décor. He said he didn’t think the boy knew that.
I didn’t want to upset the kid when he learned he couldn’t have the owls, as has happened on other occasions with store décor. We have a number of stuffed characters from the Dr. Seuss stories scattered about for kids to enjoy while they’re in the store. On occasion a child has gotten upset – sometimes very upset – when they couldn’t take the creature home. I wanted to avoid that scream and scene.
After I paid $1400 for the collection of books the woman had brought in from her grandfather’s estate, she headed for the side door and on the way picked out a piece of candy from our complimentary candy bowl that moos when someone reaches into it – brought to us by a customer who knows of our bovine affection and collection, inspired by my middle name of Cowmeadow.
At the unusual, unexpected sound, the boy jerked his head from the books he and his mother were selecting and bounced to his feet, and stepped quickly to the candy bowl. He could only look up at it, as his elfish height prevented him from seeing what was in the cowbowl. He was fascinated.
“He’s curious about everything,” his father observed to me. “I can’t believe that a kid as bright as he is, is my son.” He told the boy that it was a candy dish, and immediately the sweets-lover turned his head up to me behind the elevated counter and asked politely if he could have a piece.
“Yes, you may,” I told him. “It’s a magic cow, and if it likes you, it will moo when you reach in” – pulling the thought out of thin air. His father walked over and picked him up so he could see his choices: Sixlits, Tootsie Rolls, cinnamon and butterscotch hard candy, Bazooka bubble gum, and more. Alas, we had no Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans.
He giggled, reached out, then laughed when the cow did its moo-ving thing. “How does it work?” he asked, cocking his head to try and figure it out.
“I don’t know,” I honestly admitted. “It must be magic.”
As his father set him down, he looked up at his dad and repeated in a very reasonable way, “It must be magic.”
He still had the owls under his wings…er, arms, and I motioned him to come closer.
Bending down to him I said, “I see that you found the magic owls that live here.”
“Are they magic, too?!” he asked, wide-eyed, glancing down at each owl with fresh respect.
“Yes, they are Harry Potter owls,” I explained, making it up as the words came out of my mouth. “At the magic hour of midnight, they come alive and fly around the store talking with each other and talking to the characters in all these books. I walked in on them once and it was an amazing sight!”
“Wow!” the little believer exclaimed. “Did they see you?”
“I don’t think so,” I replied, “As soon as I saw them flying, I crouched down on the floor, and left after just a couple of minutes, because I didn’t want to disturb them.”
He looked carefully at the fluffy 10-inch owls, trying to see the magic inside them.
“Now that you’ve held them carefully,” I added, “Make sure you put them back so the next time that they come alive, maybe they’ll remember you and say your name.”
“My name is Jackson!” he said clearly, returning to the side-counter display and gently placing them back next to the magic-filled Harry Potter books.
He came back over to me and he quietly added, with awe, “I hope they say my name when they come alive tonight.”