Gary Allen left his California home Saturday in a rented Toyota Yaris with no cruise control, hitting the open highways en route to a magical, mythical place.
Tysons Corner Center.
It was there, 10 years ago Thursday, that Apple opened its first retail store, setting in motion the company’s transformation from struggling innovator with little direct retail presence to a technology juggernaut worth more than $300 billion. (Only Exxon Mobil is worth more.)
Apple is known for obsessive fans, who line up for hours outside its stores for new iPads and iPhones. But there are fans, and then there are people like Allen, who doesn’t just like Apple stores, he reveres them — the way some people worship Fenway Park’s Green Monster.
Allen, a retired 911 dispatcher, has been researching Apple stores for years, and he has logged just about every imaginable fact about the sleek, interactive tech playgrounds on his Web site, ifoAppleStore.com, which gets more than 1 million page views a month. Fact: Only one Apple store has a tree inside.
“I never need an excuse to travel, but I thought it would be cool to be there when the doors open on the anniversary at the very first store,” he said this week while resting his weary accelerator foot in Columbia, Mo. He had few expectations of any sort of celebrations. “Apple likes to look forward, not back,” he said.
The Tysons Corner location opened three hours before another Apple store in Glendale, Calif., because of the time-zone difference. The company now has more than 300 stores around the world, generating about $9 billion a year in revenue and drawing a billion visitors. Allen has visited nearly 90 of them. Like thousands of others, Allen regularly attends their grand openings, having hopped on airplanes to Beijing, London, Paris and Rome (as well as to Sydney, home to the Apple store with the tree inside).
On his Web site, Allen listed questions he is sometimes asked while waiting overnight for the new stores to open: “What are you guys doing? Do you know each other? Are they giving away computers? Are they giving away free stuff? What do you get? Why are you doing this?”
Allen, 63, insists he’s a normal guy. He has a family. He just happens to love Apple stores, and he sees them as fun experiences that are also windows into our culture and a great way to meet like-minded people. “Every store has its own personality based on its location,” he said. “I like to go in and get the tenor of what the store is all about.”
Allen has stopped at several stores on his odyssey, offering quick observations about Apple retailing — and very long car trips — via his Twitter account. Some observations:
“The Leawood store is in a strip mall that has at least six empty spaces. Very strange.”
“I don’t care if it is just FedEx Ground. They are in a hurry. Stay out of their way.”
“Again, a very older demographic, at least in the early hours of the stores opening.”
“I’m at 2,170 miles . . . although I have driven backwards some.”
Along his journey, Allen has also posted pictures and videos, including an action scene of a goose walking around an Apple store parking lot (unexplained) and a photo of an elderly woman who took her sewing machine to an Apple store so the company’s so-called Geniuses could help her install patterns on it.
“That was pretty amazing,” he said.
Allen even stopped in Utah at the factory where the pristine wooden furniture for Apple stores is manufactured, saying in a video, “Thanks for all your hard work, guys.” And although Apple is known for its stainless steel storefronts, on a stop in St. Louis, Allen described the Arch as “the original stainless steel storefront.”
About 9:30 a.m. Thursday, Allen completed his journey — 3,200 miles, 12 states and 100 gallons of gas later. There were no balloons, no bands, no celebration, really, when Allen walked up to the Tysons Corner store shortly before it opened. But employees had apparently been tracking his trip online. Someone spotted him and invited him inside.
Dressed in their standard blue T-shirts, about a dozen employees clapped and hollered as he walked past iPads and iPhones to the center of the store. Allen beamed, then addressed the staff, which listened with rapt attention as he told them about his trips to Apple stores around the world. On behalf of other obsessive Apple fans, Allen said, “We appreciate all the hard work that we see and don’t see.”
As the employees dispersed to start their day, one came out of the back with a piece of cake for him. Another introduced him to an employee who has been there since Day One. Allen couldn’t stop smiling.
“I had not dreamed that I would be standing here and speaking to the staff in the number one store,” he said. “Amazing.”