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Mugglemania: J.K. Rowling Hits the Road

When the author of the Harry Potter books went on tour, only a wizard could have handled the crowds

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The Muggles begin lining up before dawn. Outside Cover to Cover Booksellers in San Francisco, they roll out their sleeping bags, pop straws into their grape juice boxes, and start chatting about flying broomsticks and ”every flavor beans.” A few have signs: ”Harry for President!” and ”Muggles unite!!” Others have purple lightning bolts temporarily tattooed on their foreheads. And everyone has The Books; some have one, most have all three, and a few smugly clutch the coveted British first editions.

If ever there was a place and a time to be an 11-year-old wizard, it’s right here and right now. At exactly 9:30 this morning, in this very bookstore, the greatest Muggle (translation: nonmagical person) of them all, English author J.K. Rowling — the 34-year-old creator of the incredibly popular Harry Potter books, about a scrawny kid who discovers he’s a wizard — will make her final appearance on a frenzied American book tour that has rivaled anything the rock & roll world ever served up. At Rowling’s last reading, at a high school gym in Santa Rosa, Calif., 2,500 raging Potter fans stomped on bleachers and chanted ”Har-ry! Har-ry!” until Rowling emerged from behind the stage (where she had been eating a turkey sandwich).

To understand Harry-mania and how a series of children’s novels, each more than 300 pages long, could together sell more than 7 million copies in English and wind up occupying the No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 slots on the New York Times best-seller list in the same week, it helps to talk to someone like Akash Baksho, 11. There’s no fancy explanation, he insists. ”J.K.,” he says, ”is just the best writer in the whole world.” He’s not the only one who thinks so. Caron Post and her daughters, Zahra, 7, and Natasha, 9, made the six-hour drive from Los Angeles the night before to be the first in line for the signing. ”We’re gonna get in,” Caron says. ”They can’t turn us down.” By 7:20 a.m., two lines — one for ticket holders, one for ticket hopefuls — stretch around different corners. By 8:30, nearly 1,000 people are waiting.

Inside the store, meanwhile, Cover to Cover events coordinator Tracy Wynne and Scholastic Press rep Roz Hilden hear one sob story after another. One woman claims her son’s father died the night before and is insisting she must have a ticket. Another says her 3-year-old had open-heart surgery and wants Rowling to visit the boy’s hospital. Another guy says he needs a book signed as part of his proposal to his future bride. ”I’m not sure I really believed any of them,” Hilden says.

At 10 minutes to 10, Rowling, who nine years ago was an unemployed single parent who dreamed up Harry Potter during a dull train ride across England, arrives in a burgundy sedan. The crowd at the curb is so thick, she and her publicist just sit there, not knowing what to do. They drive around the block and try again. This time, two burly bodyguards clear a path and shuffle Rowling into the store. Inside, children are kneeling in neat little rows in front of Rowling’s chair. The less fortunate press their noses against the window and watch a live video feed. Rowling gives an eight-minute reading from book 3, ”Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” before answering questions: Her name is pronounced ”ROE-ling,” not ”ROW-ling;” the fourth book will be released next summer; the first Harry Potter movie is due in summer 2001. She tells the kids to read as much as they can and to write, ”even if it feels like junk.”

Rowling signs 1,000 books in two hours — her signature resembling a giant black spider on the title page — before dashing out. ”It was a little like having the Beatles here,” Wynne says afterward. ”Kids will probably be coming in here for years saying, ‘Wow, that’s where the Harry Potter lady was standing.”’