LONDON — A giddy carnival erupted in the alley beside Europe's largest bookstore Friday night, as thousands of Harry Potter fans waited for the stroke of midnight, when the seventh and final book in the Potter series was released.
At the front of the line, near the front door to the Waterstone's store at Piccadilly Circus, a few haggard fans had been waiting since Wednesday, but where the queue bent around the corner the absurdist fun began.
A purple-robed man in a pointy hat shouted into his cell phone and danced with shrieking girls waving scarves of maroon and gold, Harry Potter's school colors. A few yards away, Alon and Yuval Avrami, 17-year-old identical twins from Jerusalem, passionately defended the virtue of Snape, one of Harry's professors, to anyone who would listen. Someone blew a kazoo. Amid the cacophony, two fans made up as owls perched in silence, rereading their Potter tomes.
"This is our chance to celebrate and to meet other people who love what we love," said Trisha Lee, a 42-year-old Londoner, who came dressed as a witch, with fluorescent yellow hair and fishnet tights.
She spent the whole day in the alley beside the six-story Waterstone's store, singing Potter songs and urging passing tourists to "join Dumbledore's army" by signing her placard.
All conversation stopped and the passageway burst into applause as a troupe of French women in sky-blue satin skirts and capes arrived. They vamped it up for the journalists and other Potter fans, who surged forward to snap their picture.
"Oh, it's the Beauxbatons! Aren't they fantastic?" gushed Anna Gallen, a 23-year-old barmaid dressed as a fairy. "They're from Book 4."
The party in London, the setting for bits of the Potter books, was perhaps more raucous, but across the globe, from Bratislava to Buffalo, fans lined up Friday night to buy "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," the last installment of a wildly successful series about the travails of a mop-haired orphan boy in wizard school. The author herself read the first chapter to a select audience of 500 lucky fans — many of them children selected in an international drawing — at midnight at London's Natural History Museum.
The Potter franchise — with five movies out so far and a mountain of related merchandise — has been powerful magic for the author, J.K. Rowling.
Joanne Rowling was a single mother living on welfare in Edinburgh when she completed her first children's book, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," in 1995. Now she's worth more than $1 billion, according to Forbes magazine, and is the first person to become a billionaire by writing books.
She sold more than 325 million copies of her first six books. Anticipation was especially intense for the seventh book because Rowling had hinted she would kill beloved characters, leaving fans to wonder whether Harry would be among the casualties.
Such is the excitement that the publishers imposed tight security. They tracked book delivery trucks by satellite and searched lunchboxes at printing plants. And yet some dark wizard managed to post hundreds of photos of what appeared to be pages of the latest book on an Internet site days before the official release.
Fans outside the Waterstone's store didn't let that, or a midday thunderstorm, dampen their zeal.
Lee, one of several neon-wigged witches in the alley, said she became enchanted with the Potter books when she started reading them to her 5-year-old son.
"It'd get to the point where he'd fall asleep and I'd have to nick the book off him and take it to my room to finish," she said. She took the day off work to wait at Waterstone's and believed it was well worth it. Yes, she earned the opportunity to buy one of the first few hundred books from Waterstone's. But for Lee, it was all about the camaraderie.
"We've never met before," she said, reaching out to a woman with nylon wings on her back and a skirt of green streamers, "but we've had really good discussions about whether Snape is good or evil."
What will she do once she's read the last of the Harry Potter books? That's easy: Read them again.
"There's so much going on you don't get it all the first time," Lee said. She recently reread Book 1 and found it remarkably emotional.
"There's just that bit where he finds out he's a wizard and his parents didn't die in a car crash — it really made me cry."
(Ruskin is a McClatchy special correspondent.)