To say that Pete Cowdin is tired of Harry Potter hype would be a severe understatement.
Cowdin and his wife are the owners of Reading Reptile, a children's bookstore in Kansas City, Mo. A week or so before HP Day -- that would be Saturday, when the sixth volume of J.K. Rowling's magical mystery tour will be unveiled -- he's on the phone, quoting from a "Dear Bookseller" message put out by Rowling's American publisher, Scholastic Books:
"As 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince' begins to arrive to your warehouses . . . we wanted to reiterate the importance of maintaining the highest level of security around the books. . . . We recommend you implement . . . the following in the secured staging areas and communicate this to your employees: no cell phones or recording devices and no lunch boxes or coolers, only clear bags . . ."
"You've got to be kidding!" Cowdin says.
The last time a Harry Potter book came out, in 2003, Reading Reptile staged a short play Cowdin wrote for the occasion. Set six decades in the future, it featured a dead Harry in a casket, with his cousin Dudley lording it over him. "Too many deals. Too many endorsements. Too many contracts. Too busy. He lost his magic, he did," the script had Dudley explain.
This year Cowdin isn't sure what he'll do for HP Day -- though he's thinking of putting out a news release announcing that the store will sell the books at 10 p.m. Friday instead of the publisher-mandated stroke of midnight.
Meanwhile, the Potter machine is in overdrive.
Scholastic has printed an astonishing 10.8 million books, breaking all first-printing records. Amazon.com has opened its Nevada facility to selected media for -- be still, our hearts -- "a sneak preview of the fulfillment center" as it prepares pre-ordered copies for delivery Saturday. Last week a few Harrys got sold prematurely in a British Columbia store; amazingly, the book's Canadian publisher obtained a court injunction that forbade the buyers to disclose the plot, garnering a burst of free publicity in the process.
This week, according to Scholastic, more than 200 stores in the District, Maryland and Virginia are planning midnight events. Toys Etc. in Potomac didn't make the master list, but owner Brian Mack says he'll keep his store open Friday till it's Potter time.
Mack remembers when the first Potter book, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," came out in September 1998. The store had gotten an advance reader's copy, he says, and because the staff really liked it, they "hand sold" the book, customer by customer. They sold half a dozen copies in the first few days, he thinks.
He's ordered a thousand this time. He sounds a bit nostalgic.
Back then, he says, "it was just a book."
It was just a book, and a lovely one it was -- with a lovely author and a heartwarming story behind it. "Not only is she an amazing writer," says Scholastic's Barbara Marcus, "but she is an amazing person."
Marcus runs the Scholastic children's division, though she'll retire as soon as the current book is safely launched. She first heard the words "Harry Potter" when an editor named Arthur Levine came back from an international book fair with a copy of Rowling's first manuscript. It was about to be published in Britain, but U.S. rights were still available.
Her 10-year-old daughter read it before she did. "Mom, this is better than Roald Dahl," she told her. More important was Levine's championship. "Do you really, really love it?" Marcus asked the editor when the auction price went to $100,000.
He did. "Then go for it," she said.
The basic J.K. Rowling bio was soon legend: How the idea for Harry came to her on a train. How she wrote the first book sitting in Edinburgh coffee shops, a divorced single mother living on the Scottish dole. How her British publisher didn't want the name Joanne on the cover, thinking a female author might scare boys off.
But never mind those nervous beginnings. The books succeeded, Marcus says, because they're really good and their author is "the real deal."
Rowling did a signing at Toys Etc. when the third Potter came out. She was "as down to earth, as pleasant as you could be," Mack says -- yet "almost like a Bill Clinton" when it came to connecting. Overwhelmed by fans, with about 30 seconds per person, she made each one feel "like they'd had a 20-minute conversation."
Scholastic announced a first printing of 50,000 for the first book. For the second, it was 250,000. For the third, 500,000.
But something else was happening besides a likable author's enormous success. As Pete Cowdin put it in a 2001 essay for the Kansas City Star, Harry Potter the book was being overtaken by "the Harry Potter phenomenon."
Harry got a movie deal with Warner Bros., which came with the usual bland Hollywood direction and the usual onslaught of spinoff Potter products. Rowling, who had input but no control over the merchandising, had turned her offspring over to the marketers -- though she did manage to nix a Moaning Myrtle toilet seat alarm.
Another part of the new Potter was his celebrated role as cultural savior.
"The grim truth behind the Harry Potter phenomenon," Cowdin wrote, was that "kids, by and large, don't really like reading that much. And it scares us." So how could we not love Harry when he was getting our children to read?
Talk to children's booksellers about Rowling's books and you'll hear this again and again: Harry has turned reluctant readers into bookworms; Harry has made even good readers more adventurous. This testimony is hard to doubt, but to Cowdin, it raises a question: Are we using Harry Potter to get ourselves off the hook?
American culture is largely indifferent to reading, he says. Even parents who do care about books often "stop reading to kids after the age of 8." And it's become far too easy to say, "My kid reads Harry Potter, so I'm a good parent."
Whatever Harry was, he wasn't just a book anymore. By the time the fourth volume hit the stores in July 2000, the initial print run had soared to 3.8 million and the embargo and simultaneous release date were being strictly enforced.
Rowling has said that was her doing. "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" was "the culmination of 10 years' work," she told an interviewer after its release, and it has a huge plot development at the end: "Had that got out, there's no way the book would have been as enjoyable to read."
Fair enough. But the embargo also made a wonderful marketing device.
Call it talent, marketing, luck -- by this time, Harry Potter had emerged as a prime example of what economists Robert Frank and Philip Cook have called the "winner-take-all society." Small differences in performance or talent, Frank and Cook argue, get magnified by our media culture to the point where the top-ranked performers receive wildly exaggerated economic rewards.
Is this not a bad thing? Are there not -- as booksellers passionately proclaim -- many other wonderful children's books that deserve our attention? Rowling herself, who is deeply proud of her creation, nonetheless seems embarrassed by the scale of her success.
No, it's a good thing, says economist Frank. And here's where Harry the Savior comes in again.
It is precisely his winner-take-all clout, Frank says, that makes it possible for Harry to compete for kids' attention. Without it, television and video games would sweep the field.
"I'm ecstatic!" Jackie Stroup is saying. "It's going to be a great event!"
Stroup, who manages the children's department at Barnes & Noble in Bethesda, is talking about her store's upcoming Potter party. It will start around 9 p.m. on Friday, she says. There will be a storyteller, a magician, magic wands, trivia contests and "lots of positive attitudes, lots of positive people."
Whatever happens, though, it's not likely to be as magical as the first Potter party Colette Morgan helped put on. Speaking by phone from Wild Rumpus, the bookstore she co-owns in Minneapolis, Morgan reminisces:
It was for the third book, she thinks. She and her colleagues had planned to open at midnight, but summertime is tornado weather, so when the rain came down and the sirens started sounding, "we let them in early -- three to four hundred people, standing quietly in line like the good Minnesotans they were." There was free pizza. There was a guy with an owl. Right at midnight, the power went out. "The kids thought we'd done it on purpose. The only one who could see was the owl." Until they lit the candles, that is.
This year, though, Wild Rumpus isn't doing anything for Harry. There's an edge to Morgan's voice as she explains.
"Every freaking Barnes & Noble is doing a party," she says. "For the publisher to think that we would put our money towards promoting this book, when it's overpromoted already and when the big chains are discounting 40 percent, is ludicrous."
She likes Harry, don't get her wrong. But why invest scarce resources when there are so many other deserving books around?
Morgan's is a minority view, however.
"I don't find it a problem at all," says Nancy Landon, the book buyer at Toys Etc. for 25 years, of the Potter hypefest. The books are meaty and "not garbage," she says, and Rowling is "a real writer who cares about her books and characters."
Landon refuses to stock series like the "Gossip Girls" or "Mary-Kate and Ashley." Her rule is that "I'm not willing to carry books I wouldn't give to my own children and grandchildren." But with Harry Potter, what's not to like?
As for Pete Cowdin: He's still not sure where he's going with his "guerrilla media event," the one where he'd alert the press that Reading Reptile was planning to break the embargo at 10 p.m. and -- once the camera crews arrived -- a fake police van would drive up and "jackbooted Scholastic thugs" would rush to confiscate the books.
He might do it. He might not. He's having trouble mustering much enthusiasm.
Besides, when asked, he has to confess: He actually likes the Harry Potter books.
"I wish I didn't," he says.