Monday, October 3, 2011

Harry Potter - July 21, 2007

Going back in time a litte - this was a write-up I did after working at Barnes & Noble the night the last Harry Potter book was released.

As a bookseller at a major chain bookstore, we’ve been gearing up for the 7th - and last - Harry Potter book since January. The last month or so, though, has been the real start of Harry Potter-mania at our store. We were planning who would be working, what events we would do, how we would decorate, etc. But, most importantly, we were taking reservations nonstop... the amount of books that’d be coming into our store grew rapidly, and our final count was 1,300 or 1,400 preordered books.

Last week, all the employees were given the rules for dealing with the books once they arrived – it was crazy. They’d come in boxes shrink-wrapped together. We weren’t allowed to open the shrink-wrap, and we certainly weren’t allowed to open a box. We couldn’t take pictures of the boxes, even wrapped up; we couldn’t discuss whether the books had arrived or not. We basically had to act as if the single book that we were focusing all of our attention on didn’t even exist. (Incidentally, the regular books arrived on Tuesday and the audio and deluxe books arrived on Thursday.)

On Thursday, the day before the party and subsequent midnight sale, 4 out of every 5 calls was a customer asking about reserving a book (“sorry, too late”), confirming their order (“yes, you’ll get your book; we promise”), or asking about details for the party and how to pick up the book (“you need to get a wristband”). Employees stayed late that night in order to turn the bookstore into Hogwarts and train stations and other Potter locales. They worked on getting crafts ready and moved every chair and table off the main floor.

On Friday, the first person arrived at 5 in the morning! By the time we opened at 9, a line had formed halfway down the sidewalk. Cheers went up as people got their wristbands, and some of them literally danced out the store, discussing which letter they’d received and what time they were coming back. Our festivities started at 7 PM, but I arrived for work at 6 in order to attend the pre-party meeting and get debriefed. At that point, the store was just starting to get more crowded than normal but it wasn’t too bad yet. The break room was full of my coworkers and managers, as well as about a dozen volunteers, most in varying degrees of costume. A few of us, myself included, didn’t have a costume and we were promptly given a Hogwarts hat and pin to wear for the evening, as well as a wand, if we so desired. I figured the wand could make a good weapon against unruly children, so I selected a nice, green, woodsy wand with a rope handle. I gotta admit, I felt a bit cool walking around the store with my wand. Because of the black button-up shirt I was wearing, along with the hat and wand, I had many people tell me I looked like a cop, so I found myself dubbed a Hogwarts MP. I was assigned to work with another coworker at the cash register for the evening.

By the time I left the meeting, the store was getting very crowded and costumes were becoming more abundant. The registers were pretty quiet, so I was allowed to wander and check out the events for a little while. We had a greeter in full wizard costume who had a sorting cauldron (since we couldn’t find a sorting hat); each person through the door could pick a piece of paper and be sorted into their proper “class.” We had a costume contest, a wand-making station (in the religion section for those who like irony), a wizard hat-making station, face painting, trivia games, picture frame decorating, and a cardboard Harry that people could have a Polaroid taken with. There were colored arrows taped all over the floor to direct people to each station.

After about half an hour, I was sent to CVS to buy every bit of Polaroid film they had. When I returned, the party had definitely hit its stride. There were children, adults, and teens everywhere. Adults were mostly sitting in the aisles and loitering in the open spaces created by the lack of chairs and tables; some had even brought in lawn chairs. The kids and teens were going from event to event, collecting their souvenirs and leaving a trail of glitter and feathers everywhere they went. Probably 3/4ths of the people were in a costume of some sort.

Back at the register, I had very few customers. A few people with deer-in-the-headlight expressions came though, claiming they had no idea all this was going on or they never would have come that night. I kept quiet, wondering what rock they’d been hiding under for the last few days. Occasionally, a customer would come buy a book to read while they waited, but most people didn’t bother to pay for their diversions.

Sometime around 8:30 or 9, we hit our maximum capacity; sometime around 10:30, we decided to enforce our maximum capacity. At that point, a line began forming outside, and no one was allowed in until someone else came out. We began lining people up at the registers around 11:30 and by 11:40 all 8 of our front registers were manned and boxes of books were being brought up. The cheers were so loud we couldn’t even hear the mangers, who were talking on the intercom, trying to keep the lines orderly. A reporter from the Washington Post was taking pictures and interviewing people as we announced the winners of the costume contest and gave them their prizes. A cheer went up at 10 ‘til 12, 5 ‘til 12, and, of course, 12 o’clock. A moan went up when they were told we couldn’t actually open the boxes until 12:01, so it would be after midnight, but at 12:01, when the boxes were ripped open, the noise was deafening.

We had a manager directing people to specific registers, and from 12:01 until 1:30, I don’t remember slowing down once. I was grabbing books, sliding credit cards, and counting money so fast, I felt like I had 4 arms. Volunteers behind us were constantly carrying stacks of books to each of us or running to fetch the occasional audio or deluxe version so that we never had to miss a beat. Fortunately, we received a lot of compliments about how fast and efficient we were. I don’t know the exact numbers, but I’m estimating we served about 700 customers in an hour and a half.

It was after we closed that I began hating the party. The amount of stray books strewn across the store gave the impression that a tornado had hit. Our information desk had stacks so tall you could barely see over them. To put things in perspective, on a typical night we have 2 or 3 people responsible for collecting and putting away all stray books and magazines, walking every single aisle to straighten every single shelf, doing the trash, and bringing out carts for shelving the next morning. We’re usually done 30 to 40 minutes after closing time. Last night we had about 12 people working, we skipped the shelf maintenance, and it still took us an hour.

Overall, it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I’m not a big Harry Potter fan, and I don’t claim to understand the hysteria this book caused, but I decided to just have a positive attitude for the day and allowed myself to be caught up in the excitement. Towards the end, when the clock was ticking toward midnight, I was actually having a lot of fun. I’m glad I was there and had a part in the whole event. That said, I’m also really glad this is the last book.