I was secretly a little terrified at the prospect of a couple thousand fans of a bestselling fantasy novel converging on the store in costume. I'm not much for crowds, and tend to get grumpy just thinking about lines. But it turns out my fears were totally unfounded. The crowd at the Harry Potter Event
was one of the most civil and enthusiastic I've ever witnessed. (For the record, I'm including in my experience about a hundred Indigo Girls concerts circa 1990-1997, an extremely sticky, violent mosh pit [I'm not kidding] at a Barenaked Ladies/Violent Femmes show at Bumbershoot in 1993, and the first midnight showing of the theatrically re-released Star Wars
in ? when was that? 1995?)
I was handing out free stuff to the crowd for a good portion of the night. The "free stuff" was mostly bookmarks advertising His Dark Materials and a couple of new books from publishers clearly hoping to piggyback on Harry's big night. Not that I minded, but some people looked at me, with my little apron full of bookmarks, like they were in line for the soup kitchen and I was offering them a whiff of my super yummy pizza. It was about 10 P.M., and the line was quickly wrapping around Powell's and stretching down 11th Ave. to NW Davis. The closer to the end of the line I got, the more people just wanted to know how fast the line would move and the less they cared for the ephemera I wanted to foist upon them.
A few passersby quizzed me about The Event and their reactions to the crowd and the traffic ranged from perplexed to bemused. "All this for one book?" was the refrain of the night. I occasionally considered replying with something like, "For a bunch of guys in short shorts bouncing a ball up and down a court and occasionally popping it through a net, traffic jams and crowds would seem normal, but for an extended narrative that draws on folklore and carries subtexts of power, societal alienation, and primal fear, it's bizarre? Maybe it seems strange because mass fervor for narratives in America tends to happen at movie theatres or in the privacy of our own homes in front of our televisions, not bookstores." But by then it was near midnight and the part of my brain that utilizes that kind of vocabulary was drifting out with the first tide of sleepiness.
I have to admit: I have read only the first two Harry Potter books, and that was years ago. I just never got around to the others and it never really bothered me. But when the first customers were let into the store at midnight, I was a little envious. Their collective fervor was palpable. There must be a word for the feeling one gets in a crowd of strangers who have joined together in a common interest. One feels safer, somehow, knowing that there are so many others in the world who love what they love.
The first customer out the door with her copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a lovely, bookish young woman, had been in line since early Friday morning. She was visibly shaking and tears were streaming down her face as she raised her book for everyone to see. The crowd cheered and then she hugged it to her chest and undoubtedly went home to read. It was incredibly affecting, even for someone with rather lackluster enthusiasm for The Books. More than any of the marketing or hype, more than the movies, more than Rowling's rags-to-riches story, that young woman's reaction made me wish I'd been reading the series all along.
Proof that Alexis worked her butt off. (So did Maggie.)
The rest of the evening was a blur. I don't think many on the staff stopped to eat, and even drinks of water and bathroom breaks were rare, especially for the managers working so hard to make sure everything ran smoothly. I ended up cashiering for the last couple of hours and found that the crowd, though weary, was amazingly gracious when they finally made it to the registers ? as if they had merely waltzed in the doors on a regular day instead of waiting for hours in the drizzling rain. Actually, they might have been even MORE gracious than our average customers, as they all seemed perfectly aware that we employees had been working our butts off and were just as parched and sore and bleary-eyed as they were. When they said, "Thank you," it wasn't just a socially appropriate automatic response ? they really seemed to mean it. Though there were something like 2,500 people in attendance, the line moved rapidly, and we closed the doors around 2:30 A.M. Most of us went home sometime after 3.
I crawled into bed around 3:45, closed my eyes, let my head sink blissfully into my pillow, and fell into a troubled sleep. I dreamed I was still at The Event, and that the sun was rapidly rising, the customers still coming in a continuous stream and becoming rowdier and rowdier by the minute. I won't go into details, but my post-Harry nightmare was radically different from the actual event. It was more like the aftermath of a contentious soccer match, except peopled by middle-schoolers and their harried, spent parents.
Today at The City of Books the fervor continues. It's about 9:30 P.M and every other question at the information desk in the Rose Room is about The Books. It's almost as if The Event never ended. Luckily, the crowds are still doing Hogwarts proud.