Friday, July 20, 2007

Friday Evening at the Union Square Barnes & Noble: The "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" Debut

This report by Richard Grayson first appeared on Jeff Bryant's blog Syntax of Things (go there for the original links) on Friday, July 20, 2007:

First Report from Night of a Million Muggles: Richard Grayson Braves the Deathly Hallows at the Union Square Barnes & Noble So You Don't Have To
7:30 p.m. and the L train has just safely evacuated me to Brooklyn from the combat zone that is Barnes & Noble's flagship New York store on 17th Street. This is going to be a little rough, folks, because it's spot reporting and I'm pretty much farblonjet. I'd thought I'd spend the whole evening at this, going uptown to the Time Warner Center Borders for their 9 p.m. Great Hallows Ball, then to the Park Slope Community Bookstore's feast of chocolate frogs and unicorn blood, and finally to Greenpoint's new Word Bookstore adults-only party with sangria from a cauldron and an adults-only dungeon, but I can't stand seeing any more wizards for, well, maybe the next couple of decades -- not even the ones I use to install software on the notebook PC I'm typing this on with shaky fingers.

I got out of the subway at 14th Street and found myself waiting to cross standing next to a student who was in my summer school course that ended two weeks ago. She didn't hand in her final two assignments or show up for the final; the books I assigned were too "difficult," she said. Though we're a few inches apart, she doesn't notice me until I stare at her.

"Oh, hi," she says.

"Well, I gave you a grade," I say. I gave her a mercy D+.

"It was a difficult semester," she says, "so I don't mind getting the grade I deserve."

"If I'd given you the grade you'd deserved, you would have failed," I tell her as we cross the street.

She nods. She's off to the Barnes & Noble too, with her camera, to take pictures. I've got my little memo pad to take notes. Walking through Union Square, we fall behind people wearing orange T-shirts. They're chanting "Peace now!" and "Impeach Bush" and one of them hands me an orange leaflet saying "Declare Yourself: Wear Orange! Drive Out the Bush Regime!"

As we pass the Greenmarket vendors packing up for the day and preparing to go back to their rural retreats, I say to my former student, of the orange shirts, "Where are these people's priorities? Don't they know what night this is?"

It's 6 p.m. As we approach the Barnes & Noble, she decides to run up ahead and says, "See you!" She obviously wants to get a shot of some sort of four-legged black monster hogging the sidewalk. (Twenty-eight years ago, when my first book came out, the Taplinger Publishing Company, which probably was able to do my short story collection because of the profits from its blockbuster Linda Goodman's Sun Signs, had its headquarters in the building next door to B&N.)

The monster has long, spindly legs like a giraffe and a stylized conic head. It alternates between nuzzling young women and menacing little kids. "That is not a Harry Potter creature," says one of a group of African-American teens standing next to me.

Another says, "Could it be that horse that's invisible to people unless..."

I'm swept away by the crowd into the store, along with a girl with pink hair, a quidditch broom and lots of beads. Barnes & Noble employees in black T-shirts are handing out fake aged-parchment leaflets, but I get one from the security guard, still in her regular blue uniform.

I glance at the leaflet to avoid the cacophony of the store till I can adjust. One side consists of "some tips to help you enjoy our Midnight Magic Costume Party to its fullest." If we've already reserved a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, we need to pick up a numbered GOLD wristband on the first floor; those people with the wristbands numbered 1-250 should begin lining up on the first floor at 11:15 p.m. and those with GOLD wristbands numbered 251 should sit tight: "We will announce when you should join the line."

If we have NOT reserved a copy of HP&tDH before we came in, we need to pick up a numbered RED wristband on the first floor and should not expect to "be announced" until after all the GOLD wristband numbers have been called.

Hanging on the ceiling in front of me is a collection of manila and white mailing envelopes guarded by stuffed owls. I check to see one address:

To: Hermione Granger

Tudor Highland Hill

London, England

Two Chinese-American teens ask for T-shirts. "Then you're volunteering?" says the B&N employee. "I guess," says one of the boys.

Next to me is a young hipsterish guy wearing a long braided black cloak with gold trim, doing card tricks for a small crowd. He makes some magician-like moves and does indeed finally display the King of Hearts that a girl had picked earlier.

The line for wristbands is very long, so I move along, past two kids with black wizard hats and two others wearing round fake glasses with white rims. I look down and see a twenty-something guy in a floor-length costume looking very unhappy. His black fur gloves look uncomfortable.

REAL LIVE OWLS says a sign, and they are: a middle-aged man with a blond beard and hair holds one of them in his gloved hand and another is perched nearby, yawning. A father holding a boy with a black cape who's waving a little wand points the kid to the live birds. "What is the name of Hermione's pet cat?" I hear someone ask.

I notice on the store employees' black T-shirts have only the store name on front, though no doubt in the font approved by Scholastic. The back gives the new book's title and the date. What? J.K. Rowling's name is nowhere to be seen. We authors always get screwed.

As I ride up to the second floor on the escalator, I pass a woman around age 45 who's on the down escalator. She's got a yellow lightning bolt on her forehead.

The second floor is designated Diagon Alley and there are signs on a pole, fake weathered arrow signs pointing in different directions to THE APOTHECARY: POTION MAKING, MAGICAL MENAGERIE: FREE FACE PAINTING, OLLIVANDERS: WAND MAKING, and WEASLEYS' WIZARD WHEEZES: MAGIC TRICKS & PRACTICAL JOKES. I am almost run over by a woman pushing a wide stroller containing her twin toddlers.

There's a mountain displaying the old titles in the series, in hardcover, trade paperback and mass market editions, along with lots of other books and non-book stuff like a Divination Sticker Kit, Collector's Sticker Book, Hogwarts Building Cards (on the box, Draco Malfoy says: "Build your own Hogwarts!"), puzzles, calendars, an unabridged 25-compact-disk audiobook narrated by Jim Dale, and a Hogwarts Journal with lined light-brown pages so young wizards can write their own diary entries or whatever.

Among the titles on all four sides of the display: Harry Potter y el misteria de principe, Harry Potter y la camara secreta and other Spanish titles; Hidden Myths in Harry Potter; Quidditch Through the Ages; Fact, Fiction and Folklore in Harry Potter's World; Conversations with J.K. Rowling; Muggles and Magic; The Ultimate Unofficial Guide to the Mysteries of Harry Potter; and more. I pick up a paperback, Daniel Radcliffe: No Ordinary Wizard, and am disappointed to find no photos of his recent stage appearance in Equus.

The second floor is jammed with teenagers in capes, little kids with wizard hats and various kinds of wands (I favor the ones whose tips light up) and adults, most of whom thankfully are not in costume, wandering amid forlorn, untouched displays of non-Harry-Potter-related books. A fat, bald, sixtyish man in a Hogwarts T-shirt nods as he passes me on my way to Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes. Their next magic show is an hour away, according to the fake clock, so I head over to the Magical Menagerie at 53 Diagon Alley and see four face-painters turning the littlest of the kids into the animals of their choice or giving them Harry's glasses and lightning bolt. I'm getting both bored and overwhelmed. I don't like crowds and have never read a Harry Potter book though I've inadvertently seen two of the films.

At 75 Diagon Alley (I don't know what a Diagon is), there's the Apothecary Shop where some workers stand by a steaming (dry ice) cauldron and are ladling out some liquid, adding what appears to be chartreuse chopped liver to it, and handing it out to people standing on a long line for this beverage, whatever the heck it is.

As I walk over to Ollivanders to see kids sitting at tables decorating plain wooden wands with glitter, colored twine, and other arts-and-crafts stuff, I pass so many people in long black gowns that I feel I'm in one of the Oxford quadrangle scenes from the BBC's Brideshead Revisited.

I pass a middle-aged man, the first who doesn't appear to be here for Harry because he's on the floor reading a Stephen Covey 7 Effective Habits book as I make my way towards a gray-bearded man who even I know is Dumbledore, a woman with headgear that says PLATFORM 9 3/4, and guy with longish straight black hair -- I don't know who he is but he's displaying a weird tattoo on his forearm for all the people with cell phone cameras standing in front of the costumed trio.

Nearby is a woman whose face makeup gives her the appearance of having a very bad case of either measles or Rocky Mountain spotted fever who's holding a bunch of peacock feathers. This must mean something to someone who's read the books, I guess. Or maybe not.

The third floor of Barnes & Noble has been renamed Hogwarts Castle. There are video screens of a wizard woman presiding over a spelling bee, but I don't see where it's coming from. I follow a sign to the Forbidden Forest and see four little round tables with crystal balls and tarot cards with middle-aged women telling the fortunes of teenage couples and yuppie dads with toddlers in their laps. Another sign reads LOST PARENTS, but all I see next to it are books by Suze Orman and Who Moved My Cheese?

The crowds are getting thicker and I feel a panic attack coming on, so I head over to the more spacious B&N cafe, which has been transformed into the Hogwarts Dining Hall, featuring long tables with balls of golden twine and numerous candles of all shapes sitting atop green and orange tablecloths.

Closer to where people are on line for food (it still looks the way it always does!) are "normal" tables. Most of the people sitting at them appear to have been born before the New Deal. Not to far away, people are posting with five-foot cardboard cutout posters of the book featuring the same image as the cover art, featuring Harry before he's...oh, we know what happens at the end, those leaked pages on the Web were right, even Michiko Kakutani broke the embargo with her review -- but I won't say any more in case someone reading this has a brain deficiency.

Clearly, I'm not going hog-wild for Hogwarts; I just am going wild. There's a tree walking next to me, a tree with a face in the middle of its trunk and leaves on its top. Oh, I see: I'm in the Forbidden Forest...which seems to be filled mostly with middle-aged women whose religion, I presume, is Wicca.

The majority of people here are in costume: people of all ages, races and levels of sophistication. I have heard Mandarin, Spanish, Haitian Creole, French and German spoken in addition to English and Muggle.

I am glad to see I'm not the only person getting tired. I spot kids sitting sleepily in the aisles of books on Unix/Linux and Microsoft Office application and a woman knitting on the floor of the poetry section, leaning against volumes of Cavafy, Auden and Sylvia Plath.

Okay, up to the fourth floor, as the thirty-something store employee wearing a wizard hat ahead of me on an escalator complains to a colleague that some kids were calling him "Harry Pimp."

The fourth floor is where the big events are always held, as it's mostly open space that can be covered with folding chairs. This is where the spelling bee is taking place, up on the stage. A woman dressed like one of the Hogwarts teachers I saw in the movie brings up the latest age group, all of whom have a single digit number hanging from their necks.

I watch from an approved distance for a while. Three of the kids, who appear to be fifteen or sixteen, are eliminated when they cannot spell "astronomy." Harry Potter has done a lot to get kids to be literate. I must be mishearing things at this distance. Can so many teenagers not be capable of spelling "ridiculous"? The last contestant standing, the winner, gets a prize and much applause for correctly spelling "transfiguration."

I've been transfixed, and I need to get out of here, so I take the escalator down three flights. Someone says, "Did you see Hagrid?" I probably didn't but failed to recognize him. He's big, though, right?

The store is getting more and more crowded. More conical black hats. More round glasses. More lightning bolts on foreheads.

On the way out, I see a table that says MEDIA CHECK-IN. Some members of the media appear to be getting their photos taken in front of a replica of a castle by the store's east front window. A man and a woman, the first people I've seen dressed in formal business attire, who look every bit corporate executives, confer animatedly and the man takes out his BlackBerry and starts typing something.

I exit the store. Looking at the digital countdown clock in the window I see 4:57. It's just turned 7 p.m. This is really only getting started. Even now, after I've been writing this for a couple of hours, it's 9:30 p.m. and there are still two and a half hours to go before that damned book gets sold to the wristbanded customers. And to people all over the world.

But I'm leaving Harry Potter World for now. I'll have to miss Jim Dale, man of a million voices on the audiobooks, at 10:30 p.m -- not to mention the witching hour official pub date. I pass the last of the people in wizard hats, two teenage boys leaning against the window of the Sephora store next door, eating empanadas and sipping Cokes.

At the corner I'm asked if I want a free Harry Potter bookmark. I take it. On one side it's like an open cell phone, clearly labeled "Motorola" and a picture from the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix movie where the cell phone's screen would be.

I pass just one more of them, a kid with a white stocking over his head, trickles of fake blood running along his face, before I enter the crowded 14th Street-Union Square subway station. On the train back to Brooklyn, a drunk is asleep in the seat for two at one end. He's not wearing a wizard cap.

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