Where Harry Most Enchants

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Who knew that, snuggled along Interstate 66 somewhere between Spout Run and Fair Lakes, a secret Exit 9 3/4 beckons the wizards and witches among us, just like the enchanted train track of the same number in the magical world of Harry Potter?

There are legions, it turns out, of Washington area Potterphiles living among us Muggles, or non-magical types. According to an Amazon.com ranking, three Northern Virginia communities -- Falls Church, Fairfax and Vienna -- top the list of cities and towns in per capita advance sales of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows."

By the online bookseller's reckoning, that makes Northern Virginia the "Harryest" place in the United States.

J.K. Rowling's seventh and final installment of the series is selling phenomenally everywhere, and it's not due out until July 21. At Amazon alone, customers have purchased in advance nearly a half-million copies, earning "Deathly Hallows" the No. 1 spot on the retailer's bestseller list. The volume (first U.S. printing: 12 million copies) is on track to easily outpace the sixth in the series, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," which is Amazon's all-time top-selling title, said company spokesman Sean Sundwall.

But is there something mysterious going on in the Fairfax County area that makes it Harryest? A need to escape from that deadly commute, from that job in the federal bureaucracy? Is it an environment ripe for fantasy spell-casting, something like Decongestus! while stuck on the Dulles Toll Road or Get-off-my-backus! when the boss wants that budget analysis by noon?

Or is it merely that affluent, educated Fairfax, where polls regularly place school quality at the top of residents' priorities, is a likely place for a book -- a book, not a sports team or "Star Wars VII" or an "American Idol" winner -- to draw thousands to stand in line in the middle of the night? (Granted, our sports teams are letting us down just now.)

"I've got my preorder in," said Bonnie Alvarez, 46, while checking out books Thursday at the Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library in Falls Church with her 9-year-old son, Nick. "I put it in as soon as they announced it."

Added Nick: "I know all the spells!"

Nick and his mother had just dropped off the audio version of several Harry Potter books, which they were listening to -- again -- in anticipation of July 21. The Alvarezes can't get too much of Harry's adventures at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. They saw the fourth Potter movie four times in the theater -- including once on the Smithsonian's Imax screen.

They're not the only ones. Although Amazon won't say how many pre-sales each community boasts, there are other ways to measure Northern Virginia's Potter mania. The 21-branch Fairfax County Public Library system has ordered 398 copies of "Deathly Hallows," including audio and large-print versions. The waiting list numbers 1,028, said library spokeswoman Lois Kirkpatrick.

When "Deathly Hallows" was entered into the library's online catalogue system in December, it took only 34 minutes for the first name to appear on the waiting list, Kirkpatrick said. (Only Harry Potter books and Oprah's Book Club selections are put in the online catalogue before they're published.)

"I'm very much looking forward to it," said Clint Johnson, 14, an eighth-grader at Longfellow Middle School in the Falls Church area who has read the Potter books "something on the order of" 40 times. "I'm afraid I haven't kept count. I've read them again and again since first grade, and that adds up very quickly." Clint's Potter mania is outdone only by his sister Ashley, 16, who used to keep a journal listing all the spells from the books. The entire Johnson family, including Mom and Dad, own wizard costumes.

Potterphiles line up on the eve of publication in Montgomery County and elsewhere in the region, too, of course. But only one place in Montgomery graces Amazon's list of the 100 Harryest towns: Rockville. And although the county library system also has placed orders for hundreds of copies of the seventh book, only a fraction of Fairfax's number of residents -- 386 -- are on Montgomery's waiting list.

"I'm No. 4," gloated Lisa Navidi, head of adult services at the Rockville branch.

The science of determining the Harryest places isn't exact. Using U.S. Census Bureau data from 2000, the list measures per capita pre-sales of "Deathly Hallows" in all the nation's cities and towns with populations greater than 5,000. It excludes swaths that are neither cities nor towns -- much of Fairfax County, for example. And lots of places make the list simply because they're small. The top 10, for example, includes four communities outside of Seattle, Amazon's home.

There's little question that the Washington region is a bookseller's dream market. Scholastic, the U.S. publisher of the Potter series, has scheduled six stops on its Knight Bus tour in greater Washington, out of a total of 37. The tour is scheduled to stop in mid-June in New Carrollton, Oxon Hill, Petworth, Bethesda, Chantilly and Arlington County.

It's not that the region is particularly enchanted, said Scholastic spokeswoman Sara Sinek. It's simply a metro area and an obvious stop, along with New York and Los Angeles, for a promotional tour, she said.

Potterphiles of Northern Virginia happily disagree. They love their distinction as the Harryest place in America. And they will be rewarded if the ranking, which is updated each Tuesday, holds through July. Amazon will donate $5,000 to an organization of its choosing in the city that wins the contest.

"It says something about our community," said Alvarez, who lives in Falls Church. "We have a lot of readers, a lot of parents who encourage their kids to read. It's a high-level literacy area. And it's fun."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company