I’ve been a Harry Potter fan for more than half my life. I’ve read (and re-read and re-read) the books; I’ve skipped school to see the movies; I’ve tearily declared “It’s the end of an era!” when the seventh instalments ended. I literally have been there, got the the t-shirt(s). But the one experience I missed in my Harry Potter fandom was the midnight release party, due to varying combinations of protective parents, summer jobs that either started early or ended late, a lack of equally obsessed friends and an excess of shyness that prevented me from going myself.
So when I realized that my local Chapters (American friends: that’s the Canadian Barnes and Noble) would be hosting a Midnight Magic released party for the script of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I saw it as an opportunity to set right this obviously grievous wrong, and in the process, to record my observations in the somewhat strange position of a longtime Harry Potter fan but first -time midnight release partygoer.
I had spent the evening watching The Deathly Hallows to get myself in the right frame of mind. With midnight an hour away, I gathered my pre-order receipt, my Hogwarts t-shirt, my phone. I was ready. It was time to begin.
11: 40 As I round the corner to the bookstore I see that, with twenty minutes still to go, the doors have already been opened and the crowd is in full swing inside. Perhaps this is standard practice, or perhaps (local colour alert!) it’s because six short weeks ago, this very bookstore was the site of an enormous sinkhole and mere feet from its door, an entire minivan was swallowed by the earth. Perhaps Chapters didn’t want to test the newly-reconstructed road with the strain of dozens of eager Potter fans. I don’t think Protego works for that sort of thing. Either way, I am strangely a little disappointed not to have to wait in line as part of the experience.
11: 41 For weeks this chain of bookstores had been advertising Cursed Child with the slogan “Welcome back, Potter!” a reference that I’m sure is extremely relevant and recognizable to the series’ millennial-and-under audience. A pun is a hard thing to resist, I guess, because the first thing I notice as I approach the shop is that their commitment to that particular slogan has not wavered: it’s printed across the entire store window along with a replica of the book cover.
11: 42 I’m not naive. I know Harry Potter isn’t just a series of books or the heart of a fan community: it’s big business for publishers, movie studios and retailers of every stripe. I cannot avoid this thought in the same way I might have been able to do ten years ago. I know that what I am experiencing is part of a coordinated, cross-country corporate effort. But I have to admit I’m utterly charmed by efforts made to transform this everyday big box store into a Harry Potter wonderland. It doesn’t feel slick or overdone. In fact, there’s a rough-hewn, arts n’ crafts feel to the decor.
Colour printouts of house crests adorn every pillar. Above stacks of Moleskin notebooks and bullet journals there is usually a sign that usually reads “Paper Shop.” Now “Muggle” has been written in big, non-matching letters and taped over the first word of sign, the glossy edges winking in the bright lights. A mobile of papier-mâché keys with tissue paper wings dance above a computer station. The names of spells are clustered across the walls and immediately I think of Dumbledore: “words are our most inexhaustible source of magic.”
Scattered throughout the shop are square cutouts made of newsprint, with brick capitals spelling out HAVE YOU SEEN THIS WIZARD? across the top and bottom. Jumbled in a box behind them are a series of props, including lightning bolts, round glasses, and every kind of house tie. People take turns posing and snapping, wanted wizards all. Other cutouts are painted to look like Harry, inviting people to stick their heads through and take pictures as the Boy That Lived.
I had half-expected to be one of the “old people” here, but the crowd is fairly mixed between kids with parents, twenty- and thirty-somethings, with a handful of middle-aged and older couples. In fact, I’m heartened to see that the group is relatively diverse in every sense of the word.
The crowd style is equally eclectic. Some people are in regular street clothes, some are in fan t-shirts, and others have incorporated elements of cosplay: robes and house scarves abound. There are two girls in a full mock-Hogwarts outfits: one is wearing a sorting hat, and her friend has a broom in the crook of one arm and a Bob Marley tote bag slung over the other.
The sales clerks themselves are all dressed as Hogwarts students, complete with grey cardigans, black slacks or skirts, and house ties. One efficient, commanding middle-aged woman I take to be a manager is dressed in a flowing green gowns and black robes, clearly the McGonagall of the bunch.
11: 55 As “the witching hour” approaches, the crowd gets sorted into two groups. The people who still have to purchase their copy line up at the cash, straight to the back of the store. The people have preordered their copy, like me, are tucked in a back right corner, our line weaving in and between shelves of books.
11: 58 With two minutes left to midnight, the woman in green I have come to think of as “McGonagall” starts to incite a cheering battle between the pre-order people and the cash people. Now, by nature I am not a Woo Girl. I am not prone to unsolicited or promiscuous woo-ing. But when it is called for, I can woo with the best of them, goddammit. So I cheer my heart out; I cheer until my throat is sore.
11: 59 At ten seconds to go, the cheers turn to a countdown. “One!” brings the loudest cheer yet, erupting from from both sides of the store.
12:00 The first person to get their copy is a young teenage girl who has black robes open over shorts and a t-shirt. She solemnly hands one of the clerks her receipt, the paper rolled tightly into a scroll like a diploma. In return, the woman hands her a copy of the book. The girl grins, ducks her head, and clutches the book to her chest. The crowd breaks into applause. It feels like graduation day and New Year’s Eve all rolled into one, a moment of beginning and ending both.
12:01 The rest of us start winding through through the bookshelves toward the finish line. Everything smells of sweat and paper. It’s this utterly appropriate procession through stacks of books, more than anything else, that makes me glad I reserved my copy in advance. As more and more people pass by, I see fist-pumping, selfies, and even one woman dressed in Slytherin colours who bursts into tears. Finally, my fingers close around that thick yellow hardcover (and of course, around the handles of the obligatory Harry Potter tote bag. Because there is nothing the book community loves more than a tote bag).
12:05 After the bulk of the books have been collected, there is a brief revival of the carnival feeling from earlier. People pose in the photo booths with props or check out the glossy Harry Potter displays. One group of half-dozen well-dressed young men are carefully debating the merits of different sticker packs.
I feel a tap on my shoulder. “Excuse me?” a beaming fortysomething woman with a grey pixie cut gestures to the man beside her. “Can you take our picture? We’re freaks.” She says it with pride and not a hint of self-deprecation. I ask her if she’s ever been to a midnight release before, and she lets out a not-my-first-rodeo laugh. “Yes, but we haven’t been in years!” She beams. It’s clearly good to be back.
12:20 People slowly start to file out of the store. The last people I see before I leave are a man taking a photo of a teenage girl under the “Have you seen this wizard?” cutout. When she reemerges, he returns her copy of the script to her and she looks at it fondly. “How awesome is this, Dad? Isn’t it gorgeous?” He smiles at her, pulls her into a bear hug and kisses the top of her head as they head for the door.
And just like that, it’s over: gone almost as soon as it started. Now we’ll fan out to our respective corners of the city and get down to the really important parts: reading and re-reading and discussing and endlessly dissecting the actual merits of the book, with the people in our lives and on the other side of a multitude of accounts and screens.
Leading up this night, I expected to have fun mostly, but also to feel a little silly or even jut out of place. What I felt instead was a flash of moonlit, summer-camp solidarity and a shared, unselfconscious giddiness. Until I felt it, I didn’t realize how much I needed it, this little oasis of dorky joy in what has felt like months of unrelenting grimness and cynicism.
I also realized that there was something fitting about participating in this experience for the first time for a piece of the Harry Potter story meant for the stage. The fleeting, ephemeral, and anonymous quality of the midnight release is well-suited to the story’s new medium. For most of the people gathered together that night, the moments before we even received the book were the closest we’ll come to the kind of group environment in which this particular story was meant to be shared. For most of us, there won’t be the crush of a West End theatre. For most of us, in the first moments of discovery, we were all we’ll have. For me at least, it was enough.