Closing the book on Harry Potter

Harry Potter mania is here.

Whether or not you’re a die-hard fan of the sensational J.K. Rowling epic, you are about to witness history.

It’s been nearly 10 years since the U.S. debut of the breakout book.

That’s half a lifetime ago for many of the younger “muggles” (nonwizards, for the uninitiated) who first cracked “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in 1998.

Since then, the empire of Harry Potter has rocked the international publishing world, as well as the box office.

Saturday, the modern-day book phenomenon, riding on the magical coattails of the fifth movie, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” which opened at midnight Wednesday to record crowds, will come to its climax in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” Rowling’s seventh and final book in the series.

When Friday night turns into Saturday morning – that’s midnight and not a moment sooner – staff at booksellers, libraries and even grocery stores will ceremoniously slice open boxes of the 784-page fantasy novel.

When they do, they’ll reveal the conclusion of a story that has spanned a decade and kept fans hungry for more movies, merchandise and, most of all, books.

Scholastic, the book’s U.S. publisher, is printing a record-breaking 12 million copies, overtaking the 10.8 million copies of the sixth book, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” which sold 6.9 million copies in the first 24 hours, making it the fastest-selling book in history.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” looks poised to do even better, with a record-breaking number of pre-orders on alone, already at more than 1.2 million in the United States and nearly 2 million worldwide.

“Other books do really well, but, in comparison, nothing comes close. It’s such a different league,” said Sean Sundwall, Amazon’s Seattle-based Harry Potter spokesman. “Seven of our top 10 books are Harry Potter books, and one of them hasn’t even shipped yet.”

Saturday the U.S. Postal Service will deliver Amazon pre- orders to homes throughout the region. Each will come in a special commemorative box that reads, “Muggles: Do not open until July 21.”

Though Amazon and local bookstores would not comment on the number of books to be sold locally, it appears Snohomish County is definitely a Harry Potter hot spot, according to a top-100 list of so-called “Harry-est Towns in America.”

Since its spring debut, the new Amazon list has been laden with Western Washington towns, which held nearly half of the top 10 slots, including Gig Harbor (2), Issaquah (7), Snohomish (8) and Woodinville (10), in rankings earlier this week.

Lake Stevens (63) and Bothell (71) have held their own, too, along with Poulsbo (58), Port Orchard (17) and Redmond (74), rounding out nearly 10 percent of the top-100 list earlier this week.

“It’s all about Washington and Virginia, with a Pennsylvania thrown in there for good measure,” Sundwall said of the states with the most placeholders. “I don’t know why Washington is doing so well.”

Hoping to avoid a list of America’s biggest cities, Amazon staff created a list based on per-capita advance sales, using U.S. Census figures and only towns of 5,000 or more people.

“Snohomish actually has been in the top 15 the whole way, pretty much,” said Sundwall, a former Mill Creek resident who thinks of Snohomish as a classic American bedroom community. “That’s the epitome of the kind of town we had in mind when we thought of Harry Potter.”

Emily Zimmer, 20, of Snohomish, doesn’t know for sure why her hometown is ranked so highly, but she suspects her generation is partly to thank.

She started reading Harry Potter books in junior high and watched as the fan base grew right along with the ages of the characters in the book.

“I was part of the wave,” she said. “I remember when I was in high school, there was a solid group of people who were into Harry Potter.”

Zimmer, who is now a bookseller at Borders at the Everett Mall, said the books appealed to her as a preteen but didn’t lose their bite as she grew up.

“As I got older, they dealt with more complex issues,” she said, reluctant to talk about specifics for fear of scene spoiling. “In the fourth book, someone actually dies. People get kidnapped. People get their identity stolen.

“In the fifth book, someone else dies. Harry has to take on more responsibilities. He gets more and more on his plate with every book.”

Melinda Behrend, 17, of Lake Stevens, doesn’t know why her town would make the top-100 list, either.

But Behrend, who will turn 18 the day after the book comes out, grew up with the books, too.

She, however, was not into fantasy literature. She also thought the boys at school who read Harry Potter books were “dumb.”

Then she won a Harry Potter book in a contest and felt oddly obligated to read it.

“I just couldn’t put them down,” she said. “From then on, I just kept reading them.”

Behrend quickly identified with Hermione Granger, one of Harry Potter’s sidekicks.

“She’s kind of the nerdy, really smart character, and I sort of was like that in my middle-school years,” Behrend said. “I think I dressed up as her for Halloween. It’s kind of fun to imagine you’re a certain character.”

Most of all, however, Behrend, who now writes fantasy stories of her own, was drawn to Rowling’s acclaimed writing style and skill.

“She has an amazing way of putting subtle humor into an exciting story,” she said. “Her characters are so filled out and rounded. I really, really like the way she writes.”

Ashton Greso, 9, of Everett, was a baby, not yet 2 years old, when the first Harry Potter book was published in the United States. That, however, hasn’t stopped him from becoming one of the biggest fans around, with all the books and movies under his belt.

Is he excited for the final installment?

“Do birds fly?” he asked back, describing his enthusiasm level for Saturday’s book release as “maximum.”

Ashton is most eager to see whether Harry Potter lives and Severus Snape is good or evil.

“I bet everybody wants to know that,” Ashton said. “I am sure that I am going to find out in the book. Do you think that J.K. Rowling would leave us on the end of a cliff?”

Ashton, who has reserved his book at Borders in Everett, is hoping he can get his grandmother, also a fan, to take him to the midnight celebration.

In honor of the event, the store will feature large “house scrolls” from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, along with past books, magic wands and lunch boxes featuring the evil Voldemort. Staff and customers, including many with copies of the book on reserve, are invited to wear fancy ball outfits or wizard wear for fun and games, trivia and costume contests.

“It’s huge,” said Everett Borders store manager Julie Jones. “There’s never been a response to a book like this in publishing history. People are very excited. We’ve had people coming in months in advance wanting to reserve copies of the book.”

The Sno-Isle Libraries system will host a variety of parties, including an elaborate event at the Marysville Library with free Harry Potter-themed foods, prizes, games and trivia. Teenage volunteers will turn one set of bookshelves into the Hogwarts Express train. Another area will be made into a maze for a scavenger hunt.

“They’re putting in a lot of hours,” said librarian Laura Tilman, 27, who also loves reading the books. “People get transported into a magical world.”

Sno-Isle has ordered 253 books. Cardholders have responded with more than 1,100 holds and counting, said Terry Beck, Sno-Isle’s manager of reader and information services.

“It’s really rather astonishing,” said Beck, who will spend Saturday reading the book along with her husband, Charlie, who will likely buy their two books at QFC. “He’ll go stand in line, I hope. We’ll have competitive reading all weekend.”

Beck, 53, knows people of all ages who read the Harry Potter books, including plenty of grandparents. To her, they’re beautifully written books, but they’re also funny and downright entertaining.

“I think kids like to read something that has a little bit of an adult sensibility to it,” she said, adding that she likes the idea of Hogwarts perched in some secret location north of London. “I think the whole setting of a world inside our world is sort of intriguing for us.”

Rowling’s elaborately sketched protagonists, meanwhile, are likely timeless role models for children and adults, Beck said.

“I think a character like Harry – who has no parents and a wicked aunt and uncle and a crummy cousin – he’s a character we can identify with. He’s always had to fight for what he wants, what he thinks he needs, the bare essentials,” she said. “He’s the kid with the glasses that gets picked on. Even if you don’t believe in magic, it’s kinds of cool that it happens.

“He really is a hero.”

Reporter Sarah Jackson: 425-339-3037 or sjackson@

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