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At Magic Hour, 'Harry Potter' Flies Off Shelves

From London to L.A., fans line up to carry off the highly anticipated 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' just after midnight.

June 21, 2003|Monte Morin | Times Staff Writer

As if shattering a sinister spell at the stroke of midnight, publishers lifted a worldwide embargo on the sale of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" this morning, sending winding lines of children and parents pouring into stores for the latest installment of the wildly successful children's book series.

As part of a globally coordinated campaign, copies of author J.K. Rowling's book went on sale at precisely 12:01 a.m. As the magical hour crept from time zone to time zone, children tore into boxes of the 896-page hardback and plunked down an allowance-busting $30 for the U.S. version of the book. From London to Los Angeles, the event was celebrated at slumber parties, magic shows, costume contests and eleventh hour punch parties at bookstores.

On Piccadilly Street in London, a line of Potter fans stretched nearly 1,000 feet from one of Britain's ubiquitous Waterstone bookstores, testifying to the power of the pre-launch Potter hype. Among those in the yawning, shivering crowd was Emerson Spartz, 16, who had flown with his parents from Illinois so he could buy his copy "where the story began."

"I want to feel the weight of that book; I want to hug it to my heart," said Spartz, who runs a Harry Potter Web site with his mother, Maggi. Then, hoping to disguise his eagerness somewhat, Spartz blurted, "I'm not strange or anything -- I like golf, too."

When the doors swung open to squeals of the faithful, some Potter fans lost their heads.

"I opened it to the back page and -- well, I couldn't help it -- I started scanning the page," said Natalia Leigh, 18, one of the first to get a copy. "Now I know what happens."

As the appointed hour approached in New York, customers at a Barnes & Noble bookstore near Lincoln Center counted down as if it were New Year's Eve. At zero, costumed clerks hauled out boxes of books and tore them open.

"It's over! It's over! We got it!" screamed Columbia University student Sohini Kar, 19, clutching the dark blue book like a life preserver.

As customers waited for their turn at the register, young children who could stay up no longer fell asleep in aisles throughout the store.

"You know, this is like Woodstock for kids," said Carl McLaughlin, a New York City police officer who was providing security during the sale. "Instead of sleeping in the mud, they're sleeping in the aisles."

While other children fidgeted in their Harry Potter costumes, 10-year-old Nathan Kahn, of Brooklyn, announced to the crowd: "I read the fourth book in less than a day. It is 737 1/2 pages long!"

Nathan said he would tear into the book immediately. "Me and my dad will start reading as we go home tonight on the subway."

With hours to go before the books were distributed in Los Angeles, matters grew tense.

Chaos broke out at the Borders bookstore in Sherman Oaks after management shifted a line of about 75 customers who had been waiting for priority tickets. Customers who had been at the front of the line suddenly found themselves at the back. The crowd began yelling and some burst into tears.

At Barnes & Noble on Santa Monica's 3rd Street Promenade, where a long line formed as midnight neared, Inuka Fikes waited at the front. Decked out in Harry Potter buttons, T-shirt, earrings and hat, the 60-year-old grandmother described herself as a die-hard fan.

Fikes said she had taken an afternoon bus from South Los Angeles and wasn't sure how she would get home after midnight but joked, "Harry Potter will keep me safe."

Amy Cassord, 28, showed up at a strip mall in Brea at about 4:30 p.m. and begged the manager of a Borders bookstore to start a line so she could be first. With that accomplished, she laid a fuzzy green blanket on the cold concrete for the 7 1/2-hour wait.

The book's release marked the largest initial print run in history: a whopping 8.5 million copies. Electronic billboards in Times Square in New York and on the Sunset Strip counted down to the book's release.

"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is the fifth book in a planned series of seven about a young wizard named Harry Potter, whose parents were killed by the evil sorcerer Voldemort when Harry was a baby. Harry and his trusted friends, Ron and Hermione, inhabit both this world and a parallel world of wizards, spells and mythical creatures, to which ordinary humans, or "muggles," are oblivious. When not attending classes at Hogwarts, a boarding school for young wizards, the three battle Voldemort and other forces of evil.

The real magic of the series, parents and teachers say, is its ability to inspire children to read, and read voraciously. Since the series opened in 1997 with "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," almost 200 million volumes have been sold and the four books have appeared in more than four dozen languages. Pre-orders of the English-language version of the latest book topped more than 1 million at Amazon.com.

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