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Midnight magic at Potterfest - Fans celebrate all things Harry Potter for release of `Half-Blood Prince"

By Mary L. Grady

To be sure, a web of various spells and enchantments had taken up residence over the Island the past several days. Was it due to restless Islanders longing for the next installment of the saga of young wizards in ``Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince?''

Perhaps. But it could have been the presence of a nondescript orange and white U-Haul truck. Secured within were dozens of white and blue cardboard casks crammed with the mystical pages of the latest adventures of Harry Potter and his friends. Each parcel was marked with a stern warning. The seal on each was not to be broken before the stroke of midnight on July 15.

To protect citizens and property from the intensity of magic stored within, Island Books proprietor Roger Page had the truck moved nightly to a secret location. Mercer Island police and fire personnel had been alerted to the presence of the mysterious transport.

In the day before the seals on the boxes would finally be opened for the Island celebration of Potterfest last Friday night, the truck with the Arizona license plates was brought to the north-end fire station. Its rear door was heavily padlocked against intruders. If you had dared to lean in close, you might have sensed a low hum.

Was it a rustling of owl feathers or perhaps the snoring of Fluffy, the three-headed dog? You would swear on your last pack of jelly slugs that you could see the shadow of Nearly Headless Nick winking through the orange paint. It was best not to linger too close too long.

Finally, it was the hour for the Island Potter faithful to gather. First they heard the stories of the winners of the Potterfest writing contest. Then it was time to watch the first Potter film, ``Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.''

A huge 40-foot-high inflatable movie screen served as a beacon to lure citizens to Mercerdale Park. Potterites donned wizard cloaks and pointed hats and came armed with blankets, pillows and lawn chairs.

A gloom as formidable as the dreaded third floor at Hogwarts and a rain that had pelted the Island earlier, may have kept some Potter acolytes away.

But more than 300 people were not deterred by the damp.

``It is exciting and dramatic,'' Corey Goelz, 9, said of the event and Potter books in general. He had come with his mother, Joanne Abelson.

``We have read them all at least once. We take turns reading,'' Abelson said of her family and noted that she too was looking forward to the new book.

The planning for the community event was months in the making. Page organized and sponsored the event, along with the Mercer Island Library, the Reporter and the city Parks and Recreation Department. He said that the store began taking requests for the book in January. Island Books' staff worked several months on the details of handing out more than 600 books to a horde of Potter-mad Islanders. By June, they contacted 400 people by e-mail and called 100 more. There were spreadsheets, e-mail lists, tickets to be distributed, costumes to rent. At least 17 people were on-hand to give out the pre-paid books just past midnight.

Page hoped to distribute a book every five seconds, completing the task within an hour after midnight. It seemed that the book store made their goal. He had considered ``asking anyone who had experience herding cats,'' to give him a call.

In June of 2003, with the release of ``Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,'' Page and his fellow wizards sold 900 on the first night at a similar event held in the parking lot in front of the store. Police estimated that 1,600 people came to that event.

QFC stores on the Island have also been taking reservations for the new book.

``We have about 50 people on a list,'' said Colin Murphy, the north-end QFC manager on Friday afternoon. In 2003, the Island grocery also quickly sold out of the fourth installment of the series.

Murphy guessed the store had 150 books at the ready to sell right after midnight.

``They are locked up tight in a computer room here at the store,'' he said.

As the flickering screen colored the night sky, more parents than children could be heard adding commentary to the drama.

``They break a lot of rules, don't they,'' one mother noted about the young wizards in the story.

As the evening wore on, sleepy children crawled into laps and teenagers drifted to the perimeter to talk. The smell of popcorn filled the air.

To stay warm, members of the Cronic family brought more than enough bedding for all of Gryffindor. The family had just moved to the Island from Davis, Calif. Kevin Cronic, a former Islander and member of the Mercer Island High School class of 1980, estimated the temperature was more than 100 degrees at their old home. But Potter fiends, Kelly, 10, and Laura, 7 didn't seem to mind the change in climate.

``Every time I come back,'' Cronic said, ``the Island looks better and better to me.''

After the movie, those holding a colored ticket were granted entry into a circle where they would finally receive their book. A lively but disembodied voice directed the ticket holders to their positions.

Islander dad Mark Welch wisely waited nearby while his group queued up to receive the goods. He and two other Island families, the Ceros and the Lavallees, were getting their books and books on tape for a caravan over to Sun Mountain Lodge the next morning for a vacation.

Welch described his daughter 12-year-old Katie, as ``the biggest Potter fan ever.'' She along with her brother Peter, 9, were looking forward to the trip to Eastern Washington even more now that they would be armed with their new books.

``We were going to leave at 8 a.m.,'' Welch sighed, ``but it looks like 10 now.''

As the last book was clasped by greedy hands and folded into a robe, the old U-haul seemed to sigh with relief. The concentration of magic had vanished into the deepening Island night. As the park fell silent, those who lingered may have glimpsed a white feather or two as the truck sped away.

Please see the Lifestyle section to read winning entries of the ``Enchanted Island'' writing contest sponsored by the Mercer Island Library and the Reporter.

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