Pottermania at midnight

There were real owls, fake witches and definitely more girls than boys in line at the biggest book event of the year.

By Laura Miller
July 8, 2000 8:10PM (UTC)
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On an unseasonably cool night for July in Manhattan, people began lining up in front of the Upper West Side Barnes and Noble bookstore at about 10 p.m. Friday to buy "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." By the time the feverishly awaited book went on sale at midnight, the line had stretched to include almost 350 people.

Like most of the bookstores that stayed open late (or that reopened just before midnight) to sell the book, this one had thrown itself into the event. The staff were dressed in witch and wizard costumes and the store was decorated with bunches of star-shaped balloons, plastic spiders and a few cauldrons (one filled with defunct dry ice) beside enormous, ziggurat-like piles of the previous three books in J.K. Rowling's popular series.

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Yet in the City that Never Sleeps, it seems that most people still put their kids to bed before midnight, even in the summer and even when the publishing event of the year is at hand. Most of the supplicants lined up around the corner of Broadway and 67th Street were grown-ups (though Salon critic Charles Taylor was probably the only one whiling away the hours by reading Isaiah Berlin).

The relative scarcity of children gave a slightly desperate air to the journalists who trolled the length of the line in search of quotes like seagulls patrolling a beach for dropped hot dog buns. We spotted a dozen reporter's notebooks, four or five microphones and two TV crews. It seemed that every kid on hand was interviewed at least three times and taped or filmed twice.

Eleven-year-old Caitlin, who, with her mother, was visiting the city from Syracuse, N.Y., was composed despite her professed excitement. The question of whether she would be allowed to start reading the book that night provoked a quiet discussion with her mom, who confessed that she was hoping to dip into it herself once her daughter fell asleep.

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One couple, well-girded with cell phones, was playing host to a slumber party composed of eight costumed girls under the age of 10 and a 6-month old infant with a thunderbolt-shaped "scar" (a l` Master Potter) painted on her forehead. For all the talk of Harry Potter winning boys over to reading, most of the young fans who turned out last night were girls -- which didn't prevent them from happily donning the plastic Potter-style spectacles and thunderbolt decals handed out by B&N employees.

One young woman in her 20s loudly discussed the finer points of Rowling's books with a clutch of 8-year-olds ("I just hope they don't ruin it," she said of the forthcoming film version). She shouted "Yes!" and jumped up and down when she finally made it to the register and was handed her copy. With that exception, the adults in line remained sedate.

Perhaps some of them were picking up books for children who had already been tucked into their beds that night. Perhaps they weren't even fans themselves. If so, they must have been particularly annoyed by an animated woman, dressed as a witch, who ran up and down the line handing out lyric sheets and exhorting the faithful to join her in a musical tribute to Harry Potter, sung to the tune of the dreaded old campfire song, "Bingo." Those who were willing to warble got on TV. "Not again!" muttered Caitlin when what seemed like the 40th reprise was called for.

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Inside the store, a falconer invited in for the evening carried around an enormous tame Asiatic barn owl on his fist. The bird's bright orange eyes were as big as quarters and the falconer said her name was Hedwig, after Harry Potter's faithful familiar. "She'd much rather fly to someplace high up and look down on the rest of us," he confided. She was not alone. New York magazine book reviewer Daniel Mendelsohn, who along with several other critics had to camp out for an hour and a half in order to make a Monday morning deadline, expressed bafflement at the craze ("They're no better than a lot of other kids' books") and rolled his eyes in exasperation as he finally filed into the store and up to the register, saying "This is the most demented thing I've ever seen."

Perhaps, but as I rode home on the subway surrounded by people who sat happily with open copies of "Goblet" on their laps, what struck me as most extraordinary about the event was neither the lines nor the TV cameras nor the spectacle of kids going wild over a book. It was the knowledge, unprecedented in a life devoted to the solitary practice of reading, that last night and throughout this weekend, I and millions of other people, young and old, will all be reading the very same book.


Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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