Saturday, July 21, 2007
And then it was midnight
With less than 30 minutes to midnight, Wil Ennis got on top of a table. Wristband numbers 1 through 75 were to line up on one side; 76-100 yellow on another; the rest to come.

More people, new people just arriving, started coming through the front door. Staffers and a security guard guided them to the wristband station. It was like an airport as a flight is called, like Filene's during their wedding gown sale. The front-runners started taking their marks.

Twenty-five minutes. Twenty minutes. Fifteen minutes. A Barnes & Noble Web site clock counted down by hundredths of a second.

"3,440 pages read. Only 784 to go," read the cards from the photo booth.

A new line of about 20 snaked into the store's Starbucks, awaiting wristbands. Still people came through the doors. One woman came to the information desk, looking for information on a James Patterson book. She appeared perplexed.

At the two-minute mark, Karen, the manager, came out with the Magic Box, which contained the "Deathly Hallows." Wil attempted to get a cheer going: "Harry!" "Potter!" "Harry!" "Potter!" Within 30 seconds, it had changed to "Show us the book!" "Show us the book!"

And then the final seconds ticked off: Five! Four! Three! Two! One!

And Wil held the book high!

Then it was time ... to buy. A gallop to the cashiers. An exchange of currency or credit cards. And a mother, finished with the process, gently led her daughter out of the store.

The girl was not looking forward. She had her head buried in the book.
Friday, July 20, 2007
As King Chapman's magic show wraps up, you can tell people are getting ready for the big reveal -- the books.

A few people are wandering to the other end of the store, where the checkout counter is. A few children are showing signs of fatigue. After all, it's approaching midnight. This may be the first time they've been up this late. (For that matter, some of their parents may normally be asleep by now.)

Thirty minutes to go.
The faithful
Jaime Stinson and Lauren Shaw take Harry Potter very seriously.

Both Stinson, 29, and Shaw, 27, are members of the Atlanta Harry Potter group, a 30-person club devoted to all things Potter. (Stinson says that another 45 people are on the e-mail list.) The group meets once a month to play games, throw parties and to hash out the Potter mythology.

"You know, what happens to this person, who is really evil ... We have yelling matches," says Stinson.

Of course, many of those questions will be answered with the publication of "Deathly Hallows." What will happen to the group then?

Well, there are two movies left, Stinson points out, and the group is planning a wake in August for whoever dies in the finale. (They've already prepared "Deathly Hallows" survival kits for tonight's festivities, for readers about to undergo Potter withdrawal.)

Moreover, they're not the only ones. There are Potter groups all over the country, and like other fan organizations, they have big conventions. A recent Potter confab, Phoenix Rising, was held in New Orleans in May.

For now, the two are surmising what will happen in "Deathly Hallows." Shaw believes Ron Weasley, Harry's best friend, will die. "I think he'll sacrifice himself for Harry," she says.

And Stinson believes Harry himself won't make it to the end of the book. "I don't want it to happen," she says, "but Rowling says the book will have a definite end." And Harry's death, she adds, will be about as definite as they come.

In less than two hours, they will know.
Magical festival
It's probably past many customers' bedtimes, but the festive atmosphere keeps growing (perhaps BECAUSE it's past many customers' bedtimes -- a little bit of sugar goes a long way). Mrs. Powers, a local psychic, is doing palm and Tarot readings; magician King Chapman, after performing tricks for passers-by, is preparing for his show; and there's face painting, Potter trivia, book readings and general revelry.

Two things: King Chapman has the best-behaved rabbits I've ever seen. And yes, I had a reading from Mrs. Powers. Very interesting.

(What, you think I'm going to reveal my fortune? Get your own psychic.)
The Harry Potter costume contest was rich with Harrys and Hermiones, well-groomed kids with round-rimmed glasses or trim plaid skirts. But there were a handful of exceptions. One child came as the eccentric Luna Lovegood; another was the spitting image of Draco Malfoy.

The most clever, in my opinion, was the girl who wore a brown shirt and slacks and a spray of green leaves and vines, complete with a small blue car dangling from her hair. Yes, she was the Whomping Willow.

A girl who dressed as the seer Professor Trelawney won. Well played.

There was also a child who came dressed as Batman. I don't think he was a Potter character.
Everybody wants to be Gryffindor
The Sorting Hat is a key part of the Harry Potter books. Every fall, as the new students arrive at Hogwarts, it's the Sorting Hat which decides which of the four houses -- Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw -- they join. Which house you're tapped for is often a sign of your destiny. (Try it for yourself.)

Here at the bookstore, the evening has begun with the children (and a few adults) being separated into "houses" by a Sorting Hat. As one staffer placed the hat on the children, another (hidden) staffer recited a Hogwarts house. (At first he had to recite loudly, since his PA microphone wasn't working.)

"Hufflepuff," the voice said somberly. "Gryffindor ... Slytherin ... Slytherin ... Ravenclaw ... Gryffindor."

Most Potter fans want to be part of Gryffindor, since that's the house of Harry and his friends. A few want to be Slytherin, Gryffindor's archrival.

Not many want to be Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff.

A small boy -- perhaps 5 or 6 -- sat down in the chair and the staffer placed the Sorting Hat on his head.

"Hufflepuff," the hat said.

The boy got up, and in the time-honored manner of small boys everywhere, scrunched up his face and walked over to his mother. "Don't wanna be Hufflepuff," he muttered.
Potter's reading influence
For years, there's been a school of thought that maintains that the Harry Potter series has reinvigorated a love of reading in children.

But recently a story in The New York Times, referring to federal statistics, says that there hasn't been a "Harry Potter effect" -- that reading for pleasure among children continues declining.

If that's the case, says Wil Ennis, he hasn't noticed.

Ennis, the community relations manager at this Atlanta Barnes & Noble, says that tables of summer reading now have to be restocked weekly -- a big difference from a few years ago. And the amount of space devoted to certain genres of children's and young adult books has expanded greatly.

Bonnie Brochstein, a teacher at a nearby public school, agrees. She says Potter has a huge following among her sixth-graders -- and so do other books.

Ennis' and Brochstein's experiences are anecdotal, of course. But they give me hope that perhaps the federal statistics are missing something.
A P-Day birthday
Natalie Hill is turning 10 this weekend, which means she's been alive exactly as long as the Harry Potter books have been published.

The lives of Natalie and Harry are merging again today. Natalie is celebrating her 10th birthday with a party at the bookstore on the day "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" is released.

The timing is deliberate, as Natalie is a huge Harry Potter fan. She started reading the books about three years ago when she noticed her mother reading them. Hooked, she's made her way through the first six books' 3,000 pages.

Her mother says the party will probably last until about 8:30 or 9, then everyone's going to go home for a couple hours' nap. Then it's back here for midnight and the distribution of the books.

In the meantime, Natalie -- dressed as Hermione Granger, down to the Gryffindor tie -- and her friends will have some cake and raise glasses of "butterbeer." I raise a glass in tribute myself: Happy birthday, Natalie.
And so it begins
"Professor McGonagall, can you come to the front of the store?" asks the message on the public address system at the Barnes & Noble in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood.

The Hogwarts headmistress is very much needed. As of 5 p.m., a line of about 40 people has formed at the front of the store. The visitors are waiting for wristbands, which will allow them to return at 8 p.m. for the Potter festivities the store is planning, including psychic readings, a costume contest and a magic show. More important, the wristband-clad will be able to buy copies of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" at 12:01 p.m., still more than six hours away.

The line is made up of teenage girls, middle-aged fathers with young children, the occasional twentysomething -- Potter readers. In other words, pretty much everybody, demographically.

Everybody with a wristband will be able to purchase a book, but that hasn't stopped a trio of girls from comparing numbers.

"I'm 98!" one says.

"I'm 123," a second says, slightly dejectedly.

The third girl looks on triumphantly.

"I'm 90," she says.

Ah, but who will finish first?
Preparing for 'Potter'
I'm ready.

I've finished the book I was reading (the forthcoming biography "Schulz and 'Peanuts' " by David Michaelis -- which, incidentally, is one of the best books I've read this year), cleared most of my weekend and brushed up on some forgotten plot points, all in preparation for tonight's release of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" and some serious book immersion.

I'll be blogging from an Atlanta Barnes & Noble, taking in the sights and counting down the minutes to midnight. (And for all those saying, "You're spending Friday night in a bookstore?", I could waste your time telling you about how much time I used to spend in Atlanta's now-defunct Oxford Too.)

Hope you'll join me, in one way or another. Drop a comment to the blog about your own Potter-ing experiences, or send an i-Report to the site.

Just a few more hours to go ...
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
When spoilers attack
It's hard to keep a secret nowadays.

Washington has leaks, Hollywood has gossips and Harry Potter has, apparently, somebody with enough time on their hands to photograph every page of a mysteriously obtained copy of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" and post it all on the Internet.

How times have changed. Just seven years ago, when I was covering the release of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," the big news concerned a handful of retail outlets that accidentally put the book on sale before release. (I remember one girl who, Charlie Bucket-like, stumbled on the golden tome at her local Wal-Mart.)

As each succeeding Potter volume has been released, security has gotten tighter: publishing staffers sworn to secrecy; print-facility employees allegedly allowed to see only portions of the work; bookstores required to sign detailed contracts. (Charlie Bucket's creator, Roald Dahl -- to whom Potter author J.K. Rowling is often compared -- would love it.)

But nowadays all you need is one break in the chain and everybody in the world can know. It happens to car designs and beauty queens' pasts; why not the world's most famous wizard? Given the reach of the Internet, spoilers are now inescapable.

Still, some kind of consequence is not.

So what will happen to the person who posted "Deathly Hallows"? What is the punishment for a world-class spoiler?

I only wish he (or she) were living in Rowling's world. There, he'd be sent to Azkaban and haunted by a Dementor. In our world, he'll simply continue being a troll.

Update, Thursday 7/19, 10:55 a.m.: Sure, it's just a review -- and a positive one at that -- but if you want to remain completely surprised by "Deathly Hallows" don't look at The New York Times' Web site's front page. The Gray Lady has already posted its "Deathly Hallows" review.
Monday, July 16, 2007
Celebrities can be ugly -- and so can everybody else
Nice column by Virginia Heffernan in yesterday's New York Times on the desire to pick at celebrity photographs -- and see celebrities at their worst.

We may crave beauty, but there's always that demon in our hearts that yearns to tear down the pedestal. What's striking in the Internet age is the proliferation of such nasty commentary -- and photos to match.

Is it a response to too much Photoshopping and publicist puffery? The idea that fame for certain beautiful people (usually beautiful women) is undeserved? Or just an opportunity to vent our inner 6-year-olds?

Whatever it is, it's as old as human nature.
Occasional musings and gab about the world of entertainment.
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