Monday, July 23, 2007

Harry Potter Hell

Here was my plan for Friday night: a delicious dinner with Publitron. A screening of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix . Swing over to Barnes & Noble in Union Square, meet up with fellow Harry Potter fans, peruse the decorated floors until midnight, wait until the number on my gold wristband was called, grab my book, and head home.

Here’s what happened instead –

Delicious dinner: check
HP 5 Movie: check
Meet other HP folks: check
Head to B&N: check
Peruse decorated floors: failure

Why you may ask? Because Barnes and Noble had somehow, between the hours of 5:00 pm and 11:00 pm become a giant, unorganized clusterfuck . Some of you may be staring at this thinking, well, of course. It was the release of the final Harry Potter. Of course there were crowds. To which I reply, yes, of course. Crowds, I was prepared for, even anticipated. I had reserved my copy ahead of time, spent my lunch hour on Friday waiting in a line to pick up my wristband with my number (675 – not too shabby), and had been assured by the oh-so-cheerful employees that I could show up at “anytime” with my special golden ticket and enjoy.

Lies. All of it. For those of you unfamiliar with the Harry Potter process at B&N, let me explain. There are two types of wristbands which you may pick up ahead of time: gold and red. Gold means you called at least the day before to reserve a copy and are therefore among the “first” to get your book. Red means you forgot to call but bothered to come by before the party, so are now “second” to get the book – still ahead of the poor schmucks who just show up at the party with no wristband at all – they’re last. Now, all of these wristbands are numbered. The plan is, at 12:01 am, the B&N employees announce a group of numbers over the loud speakers, i.e. “Gold Wristbands #1-50,” and these people happily march up in an organized fashion and purchase their book. Simple, right?

Wrong. So wrong. As our little band of Harry Potter readers approached Union Square, it became clear that somewhere along the line, the system had broken down. A line was formed around the building. We quickly bypassed that, assuming that with our special wristbands, we were, well, golden. As we rounded the corner and approached the entrance, another problem quickly became apparent. The entrance was completely blocked by an organized mob of people – all of them with gold wristbands…

Despite being about 20 feet from the door, no one seemed to have a clear idea of what was happening. From what we could garner from word of mouth, B&N had shut their doors until midnight, when, as people purchasing the book began leaving, more people would be allowed in, presumably by the order on their wristbands. Again, we put too much faith in the organizational powers of this major chain.

Yet, no one was really complaining. After all, we were less than 30 minutes away from the release of the final Harry Potter. And we, of the gold wristbands, still believed that we would be inside shortly after midnight. The clock ticked down, and as we neared the final moment, the crowd joined together to count down the final ten seconds with all the enthusiasm of the Y2K New Year. The general feeling of excitement continued for a good five minutes, especially as the first Potter fans began to exit, holding the new book triumphantly.

As it became clear that despite the people exiting, the crowd outside was not moving, the mood began to shift. I happened to be standing next to a woman who knew someone on the inside, and every 5 minutes or so, her kindly friend would call with updates, which we would then relay to the crowd. This second hand information was our only source of news, as the staff of Barnes and Noble had not bothered to dip into their unlimited party budget to purchase a megaphone (At first, news was relayed with complete enthusiasm…as we announced the numbers that were being called inside, these people would gleefully push towards the door as we cleared a path, happy that our number would soon come.

By the time we hit the 600s, it became clear that the doors of B&N were still not opening . Apparently, they had decided to serve EVERYONE inside before allowing the crowd in. So much for our numbers. Still, we clung to the hope that once they went through the gold wristbanded folks inside, the employees would call us in by order of our bracelets. A second tier of gold, which, although not quite what we had bargained for, still a relatively painless process.

Wrong again. At some time shortly before one, the doors began to open, letting in small sections of the mob at a time. Anyone with a wristband was allowed in, first come, first serve. The group quickly began to turn on each other. The same people I had been commiserating with for the past hour and half were now shoving past me, throwing elbows, wands, and broomsticks (did I mention all the costumes?), all the while holding their hands up high, as if the piece of paper wrapped around their wrist justified it all.

1:30 am. One hour and fifteen minutes after the estimate I had been given by B&N earlier in the day for my purchase time, I was finally inside. Again, no one had any idea what was happening. We appeared to have been corralled into a large holding pen, surrounded by ropes. After 10 minutes or so there, in which the shoving and pushing from outside continued, we were bottlenecked into narrower and narrower sections, eventually into a single file line that wrapped around the store.

Delirium seemed to have set in. No one even cared about the book anymore. Our legs hurt, we were thirsty, and many of us were in desperate need of a restroom. All that mattered was making it to the front of the line. The goal had shifted – holding that precious book paled in comparison to the greater prize – getting to leave the hell hole that was Barnes & Noble.

I’m happy to say that I managed to get my book shortly before 2 am, and after a cigarette and a Vitamin Water, I was almost ready to say it was worth it. I read the first 40 pages on the subway ride home, and finished the entire thing by Saturday evening.

Could I have just woken up early Saturday and gotten it? Sure. Would it have been a hell of a lot easier? Of course. Would I do it again? Most definitely – only, next time, I would go to McNally Robinson


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