Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Deathly Hallows vs. the Half-Blood Prince

(Fear not, the post is spoiler-free.)

Two years ago Ms. The Critic and I went to the midnight release party for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince dragging along The Littlest Critic. Even though we were leaving to drive to Pennsylvania the next morning for vacation, we drove all the way across Cleveland to the East Side. Most likely closer bookstores than Joseph-Beth were hosting a midnight release party (we didn’t think to check), but we had received an announcement from Joseph-Beth and we were hyped.

An independent mini-chain of five bookstores, mostly in the region of Ohio, Joseph-Beth offers a size and selection comparable to (and often surpassing) the mega-chains of Borders and Barnes & Noble. Their children’s section has to be seen to be believed. It is almost a separate toy store with the kind of fun and interesting toys you can’t find anywhere like Wedgits. They also have a huge selection of puppets and more books than Borders.

The Cleveland store is situated in one of those fashionable outdoor malls called Legacy Village in Lyndhurst, Ohio. I have to admit for a preference toward these new exterior malls over the old style interior ones, at least when the weather is nice. Sure, most of the stores in these places are overpriced, high-end crap I’ll never buy (like a certain $4,000 sofa from Arhaus Ms. The Critic finally came to her senses about not purchasing), but if I have to be dragged from store to store, at least outdoor malls provide a break from the monotonous death pallor of fluorescent lights.

The 2005 release party was a lot of fun, even if most of the events and such were geared toward very young children. Ms. The Critic got in line with The Littlest Critic for the Sorting Hat to find out their houses (almost all small children were automatically sent to Gryffindor, naturally, while adults were shunted to Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw; all the Goth kids were Slytherins, naturally). We were too late to the party to get any of the tasty wizarding snacks or drinks, but that was all right. The store was filled with kids and their parents lining up for Potion Making; there was a costume contest; and everywhere you turned the store had something enchanting going on.

It was a real treat, fun, kid friendly, almost magical. The staff at Joseph-Beth were in costume and they were amiable and helpful. While the wife and child moved about the kid section looking at fun books and stuff, I got in line to pre-purchase our copy of Half-Blood Prince. I filled out a small form with my name, address, phone number, email, then they took my credit card and made a carbon copy of it, old-school fashion. Then I was given a numbered slip of paper. At midnight, I could get in line and be handed my book.

Seconds before midnight, everyone began a countdown, cheering at its conclusion, balloons were released from the ceiling, and the lines began moving. And by moving, I mean moving. Within half an hour, we had our book in our hand, and before one o’clock, the store was practically deserted. Geared towards kids, the Joseph-Beth party wrapped up fast and was over.

Ms. The Critic tried to read a little of the novel on the forty minute drive home, but alas, reading in a moving car makes her ill, so she was thwarted. She’d spend a few minutes each night of our vacation that next week reading the book. She didn’t finish until we were back home, where I secured a second copy from the library and read almost page for page with her, The Littlest Critic running rampant an unattended through the house. It was distinctly an event.

Some people complained that year about parents dragging their young children out to a midnight book release party, but we thought it was great. Kids stay up late almost every year to celebrate some intangible nonsense like New Years. Isn’t it much finer to let them stay up late to celebrate a book, to celebrate reading?

That year’s release party will always hold a special place in our hearts. It was the first one we attended, it was fun, and we were all so happy.

Flash forward two years for a tale of contrasts.

Due to time constraints and a very, very busy social calendar this summer, we were unable to attend Joseph-Beth’s release party. We had a wedding of one of Ms. The Critic’s coworkers to attend the next day. We opted instead for the much closer Borders Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows party that was only fifteen minutes away. The Littlest Critic didn’t come with us this time, her cousin and grandma up for a visit, so it was just the wife and myself.

Borders was packed. You had to stand in line just to get in the store. Once inside, you got in another line. This was to receive a colored wristband denoting your place in the Deathly Hallows purchasing line. Had I arrived at the store’s opening at 8am, I could have stood in line and got a much better place in the later line, but it had slipped my mind as the house painters were arriving that Friday morning to begin prep work on our place.

Our wristband was purple. The list of colors went something like this: Orange, Silver, Blue, Yellow, Green, Purple. We were at the end of the end of a line.

Ms. The Critic and I mingled about the store. We got in line for a coffee and spent over forty-five minutes waiting to get to the register. Meanwhile, some of the wife’s students approached and they talked about the upcoming wedding and this and that. If there were games or contests or Sorting Hats about, it was impossible to tell for all the lines and all the people crammed into the store. A few customers were in costume, mostly as Gryffindors or Slytherins, though my favorite was a middle-aged man distinctly dressed as Mad-Eye Moody.

Two raffles were held, one for a signed poster, one for first place in the line. True to form, neither Ms. The Critic nor myself won the raffle, our separate long histories of raffle losses assuring us how little we had to hope from this one. Then it was midnight. The assembled customers were game and we counted down to midnight.

And then began the march.

I say march, because unlike Joseph-Beth’s slap-a-book-on-the-counter-and-go-go-go policy, Borders is distinctly and hatefully customer unfriendly. Joseph-Beth has a square, central purchasing counter and they had four lines going at once. When I say we moved, we moved. It was more like a sprint. The one single, orange wristband Borders line snaked all the way through the store. You got to the counter, they asked how many copies you had pre-ordered, then you got out your money or credit card, and they rung you up. The line shifted a smidgen and the next customer got up to their four-register counter.

Marketing studies at grocery stores have indicated that the more time customers spend in the store, the more money they will ultimately spend. This is why items that seem like good matches to go together are often at differing ends of the store. This is why one day soup is in aisle ten and two weeks later it is in aisle six. The idea is to keep you hunting around for things you really want, counting on you to impulse buy a bunch of other stuff that catches you or your kids’ fancy.

Borders has no incentive to make their policy any more customer friendly. You’re there for the event. What are you going to do, leave after an hour, waste all that time, go buy your book at some non-magical place where no one but Muggles are shopping? Please. And so, after nearly an hour, the orange wristband customers were still in line all the way through the store. And along the way, look at all these books to buy.

Everyone we met who saw our purple wristband assured us we’d be there until at least four in the morning. Acting on a tip, we left the store, drove across the street to the nearby shopping mall where Waldenbooks was also hosting a midnight release party. If you want to call it a party. From what we saw inside the store, they had even fewer activities than Borders. The woman at the table at the store’s entrance wouldn’t even let us in.

“Are you on the list?” she asked, as if we weren’t customers willing to purchase their wares but gatecrashers trying to sneak into an A-list Hollywood shindig. When we told her we were not, she denied us entry. The reason? “We need copies to sell tomorrow.” I see. You can’t sell us a book because you need to sell the books eight hours later. Right. That makes sense. We left the mall, more than just a little bit angry at that kind of ridiculousness. It will come as no shock to learn that Waldenbooks is owned by Borders.

Acting on another interesting tip, we swung into the nearby grocery store only to find they had sold all of their copies. Back we went to Borders going on 1:30, where the first silver wristband customers were now allowed to get within one hundred feet of the registers. The likelihood of our obtaining a copy here before the Bride and Groom were to have their first dance seemed ever more remote. Dispirited, we left Borders again, swinging by the dreaded, evil Wal-Mart on the chance that they held a party. Silly people. As if Wal-Mart would spend a dime on something frivolous like customer happiness.

Driving home, resigned to the fact that we had one copy already en route through Amazon (we each bought a copy this year with the intention of donating one copy at Christmastime), we decided to give it one last go at our local grocery store. I prowled the aisles, everything in the store shifted around to new locations, unable to find the books and magazine section. Finally I asked at the counter.

“How many copies do you need?” the woman asked. “Just one,” I told her, and she waddled off to where they kept the books locked up behind customer service. We chatted a bit about how many kids came through at midnight, and outside, I held the book’s cover to car window for Ms. The Critic to see.

The evening, always fun just for the company of my lovely wife, was, however, decidedly something short of magical.

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