The crowd at Barnes & Noble on Friday night is excited but disciplined. Oh, they know all about discipline. . . .

These are the feverish fans of E L James’s “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the erotic novel that brought S&M out of the closet and into the suburbs.

E L James, author of the sudden publishing phenomenon “Fifty Shades of Grey,” greets fans of her erotic novels — she patient and unfazed by her newfound success, they lined up and giddy. She signed at Barnes & Noble in Bethesda on Friday. (Ron Charles/The Washington Post)

Spawned last year in the dark waters of online fan fiction, “Grey” has grown into a mega-selling trilogy, topping e-book and paperback charts. Newsweek ran a cover story last month about the series. On TV and op-ed pages, cultural pundits and feminists argue about what it means.

This gathering in the tony town of Bethesda knows what it means.

Clerks and managers are whispering — not romantically — into walkie-talkies. The escalators have been reversed to help control the crowd.

“She’s in the building!” the store manager announces.

To cheers and flashes, the author — a British woman no one had heard of a year ago — is escorted to a chair in front of 2,000 copies of her books.

How important is E L James to Vintage, her publisher?

How many other new authors arrive at a book signing 200 miles from New York with her publicist? And her editor? And even the president of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group?

Can you feel the love tonight?

James isn’t tied up in knots about all the fuss. She waves to the crowd and smiles. She looks as though she could be selling chocolate chip cookies. But she’s selling a story about a young virgin and her obsessive relationship with Christian Grey, a handsome billionaire who likes to control things. Particularly her body.

James’s publicist claps his hands and barks at the next woman in line: “Come on!”

They don’t mind; they like a man who knows what he wants.

Kimberly Boyle from Elkridge, Md., has read all three books. Seven times. She’s wearing a bracelet made from little handcuffs. Her T-shirt reads, “Be Calm and Love Christian Grey.” Her husband of 18 years has no objections to this new obsession. “He’s been very happy,” she says. “It’s really heated things up. He asks me every night, ‘Have you read your book tonight, honey?’ It’s like being on our honeymoon.”

As much as Boyle loves the books, she’s already got her mind on the next step: Hollywood. “E L James has to pick the right man for this movie,” Boyle says, “or it’s going to mess everybody up.” Not everybody, I think, but I don’t argue. “It’s got to be David Gandy.”

Michelle Tomeucci of Stafford, Va., disagrees. “It’s got to be Ian Joseph Somerhalder.” He’s a heartthrob on CW’s “The Vampire Diaries.” Tomeucci says she reads about 200 books a year.  

To tell where they should stand in line, all these women — they’re almost all women — are wearing numbered hospital wristbands. They’ve come here for treatment. They’re lovesick.

Four young women are wearing green T-shirts with Christian Grey’s signature line printed on the front: “Laters, Baby.” A drawing of his helicopter is on the back. They can’t stop laughing. Angela Putnam from Annapolis says, “I’ve read certain parts more than once.” Her friends dissolve into giggles. “My husband likes them!”

Kierstin Motley, also from Annapolis, claims: “It’s not so much about the sex. It’s about the relationships.”

Why didn’t this work when men said they only read Playboy for the articles?

“By the second book,” Motley says, “I was skimming through the sex. You can only have so many mind-blowing orgasms.”

Another friend, Ashley Likourgos, from Pasadena, Md., suggests, “This book should come with a vibrator.”

Finally, a way to fight back against e-books!

The line now snakes around the bookshelves on the second floor. Arrows taped onto the carpet tell people where to go next, but it gets confusing.

“Where’s the end of the line?” a clerk demands.

“Keep on walking!” another insists.

“I need somebody to stand right here,” a manager yells.

Ben Martin from Richmond came with two female friends. He hasn’t read the novels. “I’m here for moral support,” he claims. “I’ll come with them tonight, and they’ll go with me to see ‘The Avengers’ tomorrow night.”

“Someday,” one of his friends corrects him. There are control issues here.

Bethesda residents Margaret and Bernie Marciante are, by their own admission, the eldest members of the crowd. She’s 79. He thinks he must be about 77. They’ve been married 44 years. “My brain is younger than my knees,” she says. When I ask whether she reads a lot of erotic, Bernie pipes up, “Not enough!

The line moves fast but never grows any shorter. Like Christian’s love.

James is still signing and signing and signing. The bookstore clerks keep explaining the rules: “She’ll personalize one book, and sign two others.” But people can’t help themselves. They get swept away. They want her to sign photos. They want her to sign shirts. They want her to sign body parts.

Facing James and her devoted fans is a large display of books that nobody notices called, “Why Nations Fail.”


View Photo Gallery: With the success of her hit erotic novel ‘50 Shades of Gray,’ author EL James has vaulted into the ranks of publishing superstardom.