I am really, truly, genuinely thrilled that this weekend I’ll be devouring the long-awaited seventh book about Harry Potter, for two reasons. 1.) I’m looking forward to seeing all those mysteries at last unraveled, and 2.) By that point all the distracting pre-Harry-release-day hype and hysteria will finally be over and the real fun (the bonding and the reading) will begin.
On Friday the wonderful staff at the Wellesley Free Library are hosting a full day’s worth of Harry Potter-inspired activities, followed by a "flashlight parade" to our store, where the festivities will continue until midnight. In compliance with the rules established by Warner Bros. we are not having a full-scale bash complete with fireworks or copywright infringements, but we are having face-painting and food-eating and hat-making and trivia. When the magic hour arrives we will put copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into hundreds (we hope) of hot little hands, attached to kids and adults who will head home to practice the finely-honed craft of binge reading, until they pass out from exhaustion or reach the final page of Rowling’s saga — whichever comes first. It’s a beautiful image, really — millions of people reading the same book at the same time, burning the midnight oil, filling the world with the rustle of pages. But then? Then it’ll be over. And oh, how sorry I am to see this series (and the whole Harry phenomenon) come to an end.
I first fell for Rowling’s charms in 1998, when I was a bookseller at Kids Ink Children’s Bookstore in Indianapolis, IN, learning the fine art of children’s bookselling from the wonderful Shirley Mullin. Shirley was one of those savvy owners who got in on the Harry craze from the start and began importing the books from the U.K., where the Brits had already caught Harry Fever. I remember the absurd rate at which the first two books burned their way through the entire Kids Ink staff and began working their way into the bags of our customers. By the time Scholastic published the American edition of the first book, we were already anxiously awaiting the publication of book 3, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
The phenomenon of midnight book launch parties began with the arrival of the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Hooked on bookselling, I had by that point moved to Hanover, N.H. to take the job of Co-Children’s Book Buyer at the Dartmouth Bookstore. I can vividly remember the pains I went to to convince everyone working at our store that this book was going to be a big deal. A HUGE DEAL. A "stay open until midnight" and dress our booksellers in wacky costumes deal. My efforts were more than validated when our line of 600+ customers stretched down around the corner and along the side street, where I yelled myself hoarse, explaining to one section of the line after another how the evening’s events would go, how the line was progressing, etc. That was the year Scholastic under-anticipated the demand they’d have for the books and cut our order without telling us. As a result that was also the year we ran out of books well before we ran out of midnight customers. Our best consolations were the fact that every other store in the Upper Valley had done the same and (more importantly) that our customers were understanding, fine, perfectly happy to have waited in line for two hours, only to be told they’d have to come back in a day or two when we’d have more books to sell to them. Their patience and good-natured acceptance of the situation would be almost unheard of today, but at the time we were all aglow with the feeling that we were part of something huge and surprising and truly magical. Standing together in wacky wizard robes, parents grinning from ear to ear, children giddy with excitement, none of us could quite believe that so much fuss and so much community could be built around a BOOK, of all things.
Now here we are, seven years later, and I recoil at the thought of how customers would react today were any store to run out of books at their midnight celebrations. The rise of the Internet and the superstore has contributed greatly to the desire for instant gratification — the assumption that every store should be equipped with its own enormous warehouse, or at least the ability to ship books overnight at no extra cost.
Today Amazon.com is selling Harry Potter for less money than we (and they) pay to buy the book from Scholastic in the first place. Huge as Amazon now is, they can afford to lose money on every sale of the book, whereas bookstores like ours, like Kids Ink, like all the other independents who were the first to champion this series in its early days, cannot.
What we can provide, though, and will this Friday night, is that same magical sense of community that permeated our midnight event at the Dartmouth Bookstore (now a Barnes and Noble, I’m sorry to say) seven years ago. The UPS driver pulling up in front of your house with an Internet bookstore delivery can’t give you that. The online communities of rabid readers writing their own fan fiction and hatching their own conspiracy theories can’t give it to you either. To truly appreciate the magic of what J.K. Rowling has done to put children’s literature on the map, you have to physically be in the presence of others who have read the books, loved the books, and can’t wait to get their hands on the next one. It’s the same experience you can have, on a much smaller scale, on almost any day, at our independent bookstore and at others like ours; it’s the reason most of us fell in love with bookselling in the first place: bonding over books is a powerful experience. Sharing the excitement of a great story is a tradition that predates even the printed page and will go on long after Harry has gone his way or Voldemort’s way or Neville’s way or whatever direction Rowling turns out to have been leading us.
I suppose this, to me, is the greatest consolation as this chapter in the history of children’s literature closes — that another one will open. And that there will still be, will always be, a place in it for those of us who read good books, recommend good books, and make it our first ambition to share them with you, in person, sometimes even at midnight.