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Mad About Harry

We didn't blame Harry Potter for the chaos that took over our bookstore. On second thought, yes, we did.

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We didn't want to have a party in the first place. We were going to stay open until 2 AM, sell the book, and go out to the Green Mill afterward. We weren't going to have a party, but we had to compete. Every bookstore in the known world was having a party.

So a committee was formed. Strategies were discussed. Streamers were purchased, reinforcements called in. Plastic gloves were donned. Jelly beans were counted (1,041, to be exact) as they rattled into the guessing jar.

We work at Barnes & Noble in Evanston, at the corner of Church and Sherman, one block from the Davis stops on Metra and the el. The fifth installment in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, would go on sale Friday, June 20, at midnight. Gold glitter, feathers, construction paper, special purple cafe beverages, and face paint would find their way into children's (and adults') hands and onto the floor of our store. Oh yeah, and people could start reading the book.

About three weeks before the book's release date, the acronym FHP (and the F doesn't stand for "fifth") became the preferred referent for everything concerning our favorite young wizard. Who did we blame for the chaos in the store? FHP. Stacks of magazines found in the children's section? Blame FHP. Short staffed? FHP again. So consumed were we with preparations for FHP that the June 9 release of Hillary Clinton's Living History, certain to be the best-selling nonfiction book of the year, didn't faze us in the least. By then we knew we wouldn't have enough copies of Rowling's book to fill initial demand. We had to tell customers that even if they reserved a copy they wouldn't get the book on the 21st.

One of our veteran booksellers, Marianne, admonished us to remember when parents started screaming "Where's my book?" that it's only a book, not a blood transfusion, and that they'd live for another 20 minutes, or day, or week without it. (Probably.)

Most of us on staff don't mind FHP. Since our livelihoods depend on literacy, we think it's great that kids are reading 800-page books. We think it's great that parents are reading with their kids. We think it's great that Ms. Rowling went from being a penniless single mother writing on coffeehouse napkins to the multimillionaire she is today (pick up her biography; it's now available in paperback). So what was there to complain about? Well...

Two of Evanston's biggest events happened to coincide with the FHP release date: Northwestern University's graduation and the annual Fountain Square Arts Festival, which sets up camp outside our doors. Factor in the fairgoers and the people in town for graduation, and we could guarantee the store would be overrun all weekend. (This year we ordered extra toilet paper to avoid a repeat of the rest room disaster of '02.)

The first shipment of books arrived a week and a half before the SOS date, which stands for "strict on sale" but in this case seemed particularly apt. The stacks of sealed boxes narrowed our back hallway and filled our back-stock shelves, consuming more space than all of Oprah's Book Club books combined.

The home office sent lists of books to tide customers over "while you are waiting for Harry Potter." We explained that we couldn't guarantee copies reserved after June 1, that there would be no street parking due to the art fair, that regardless of the date you ordered you'd have to wait in line, and that even if you'd already bought a payment voucher at your school book fair, you still had to preorder to guarantee getting a copy. Despite the hype, people were still surprised to be informed of the book's lack of availability.

After many months of oversaturation, we were afraid we wouldn't be able to open our own copies and savor FHP's possible romance with Cho for months--or at least until a few days after the party. Our eyes were fixed on the dim light at the end of the tunnel: the day after our Midnight Magic Party. That night promised to be Armageddon if every screaming child and over-caffeinated adult didn't get a book.

Well, we survived.

At our store, people began arriving in costume around nine, and the phones rang constantly with calls from curious fans, some wondering if it was too late to order a copy, others wanting directions. At the check-in table each customer received plastic Harry Potter glasses and a numbered ticket that guaranteed a place in line. By 10:30 we were entertaining more customers than we see on the busiest holiday weekend.

We had enough foam balls and glitter to craft 100 Golden Snitches. The crowd that swarmed in the children's section exhausted the supplies in 20 minutes. Almost as much glue and glitter ended up on the table, carpet, hands, and books as on the balls, but we didn't care. Somehow the chaos we'd dreaded was under control.

When the first 50 customers were called to purchase their books, a stampede thundered toward the cash registers. All six registers rang steadily for an hour and a half, as thrilled customers, young and old, clutched their copies to their chests. Half the preordered books were picked up in the first 24 hours. Barnes & Noble estimated it would sell one million copies in the first week--that many sold in the first 48 hours. They calculated that between midnight and 2 AM, 80 books per second were sold nationwide.

We closed our doors half an hour earlier than expected. It was 1:30 and the last customer was gone. No one went to the Green Mill.

At 8:30 AM Saturday, half an hour before opening, 20 or so customers waiting outside watched through the glass as we cleaned up the remnants of the party. People would stream in all day long looking for two things--rest rooms and Harry--but there was no stampede, no costumes, no glitter, just commerce. The Midnight Magic had faded. FHP.

On Sunday we could stay home and curl up with 870 pages.

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