Tonight marks the historic release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which, in case you have just awoken from a coma, is the the seventh book in the phenomenally popular children’s fantasy book series by J. K. Rowling. Like millions of others around the world, I’m looking forward to adding this book to my collection of the first six books of the series.
I’ve been a book lover for as long as I can remember. I was a voracious reader through all my school years, up through high school. But having moved around a lot, I didn’t actually own a lot of books until college. I really started collecting books shortly after I got out of college.
Back in 1998, I worked in a large bookstore. John and I were doing our Christmas shopping. Back in my bookstore days, everyone in both of our families got books for gifts. Or at least something we could buy at the bookstore. For one thing, the 30% employee discount was great. For another thing, just seeing all those books all the time gave ideas for gifts.
At one point during our shopping trip, we were looking for a gift for John’s 8-year-old nephew. He was a really smart kid, but he wasn’t really a reader. I think he was reading Goosebumps at the time, but that was about it. John and I both love books, and we thought maybe we could find something fun that would be a bit higher quality. We asked the children’s department supervisor about any new books, maybe a fantasy, since it was a genre we both liked. She mentioned one that she had heard was good. Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, by some new British author. There were a couple of copies of the new hardcover in the store, not enough to even put on display anywhere. As a matter of habit, as a collector, I checked to make sure they were first printings. They were. We grabbed both copies: one for the nephew, and one for us. (It looked like a fun read, and like a good addition to my growing collection of children’s fantasy books.) We wandered around a bit more, and reconsidered the book as a gift for the nephew. It was a pretty big, thick book for a kid who didn’t really read. We put one back, opting instead for a Klutz Lego book, but kept the other copy for ourselves. (Because whenever we went shopping for books for other people, we always found things for us.)
The list price of the book was $16.95. I bought my copy during the annual “employee appreciation days,” which were a few days in early Decemeber when employees got a 40% discount, instead of the usual 30%. So I paid a little over $10.00 for the book, plus 5% Massachusetts sales tax.
The book jacket got wrapped in Brodart, and then John and I both read the book. (Probably John read it first, since he reads a lot faster than I do.) We both enjoyed it, and enjoyed talking about it. The book then joined the ranks of all the other books, on one of the crowded shelves, in our little apartment that was jam-packed with books.
Within a few weeks, customers started coming into the bookstore asking for a book they’d heard about on the radio, or read about. Some had the title and author. Many couldn’t quite remember either. I remember one woman asking for a book that was about rabbits, but who wore glasses. (The Beatrix Potter association was strong in some people’s minds.) Within a few months, the popularity was booming. The book made it onto the New York Times best-seller list, something unprecedented for a children’s novel. By the time the second book was released in the US, in 1999, everyone knew Harry Potter’s name in the bookstore. In every bookstore, probably.
I was working in another bookstore the summer of 1999, as assistant manager of a smaller store of the same gigantic chain. The bigger store where I’d worked before, which often got big name authors in for signings, was scheduled to have J. K. Rowling in for a signing. Being a book collector, I also appreciated having autographed books when possible. So I planned to attend. I made sure to work an opening shift that day, so I could make it out to the bigger store for the evening signing. As the day went on, I got hints that the event was going to be bigger than I’d realized. I heard about large numbers of people already queuing up for the signing. I coudn’t leave work early, and started to worry about getting a place in line. I actually called the big store to ask if they needed additional staffing, thinking both that they would need the help, and that it could get me in the store without the line. But they said they were all staffed up to the gills.
After work, I drove out to the big store with friend from work. When we got to the store, there were people lined up all the way around the side of the building. I’d been to many, many other book signings before, but hadn’t imagined anything like this.
I had brought both of my books with me: my prized first printing of the first book, as well as the recently released second book, of which I also had a first (though much less prized) printing. We’d been told that Rowling would only be signing one book per person, though. So I left one book in the car, carefully wrapping the other in a plastic bag.
There were literally hundreds of people in line ahead of us. I don’t remember if people were lining up inside the store as well, or if all had to line up outside. From where we waited, we couldn’t actually see the front of the building, let alone the front door. It was a fun wait, with the excited crowds and the anticipation of seeing the already legendary author. The weather was beautiful (whatever month it was), and I had a friend to pass the time with. The signing was probably scheduled for 7 or 8, so there was a lot of time standing around before the line even moved. I remember that it was dark by the time we got to get in the building. Police were guarding the doors, to make sure only those standing in line could get in. Once we were in the building, we could see that the line was still very long, snaking though a few aisles of the warehouse-sized store. We got in, but not many people behind us did. It seemed they were only letting in about 600 people. Rowling had agreed only to sign for a limited amount of time.
Relieved and more excited, as the line scooched forward, I got my book out the plastic bag, looking at it for the first time since I’d gotten in line. There was my copy of Chamber of Secrets.
I’d grabbed the wrong book.
Suddenly, the line seemed to be moving all too quickly. I’d parked at the back of the building. My precious first printing of Sorcerer’s Stone was out in the car. Police stood at the door of the building, making sure that no one else was getting in.
This is where my job paid off. I got the attention of a manager who knew me, since I’d worked there a few months earlier. I told her what happened. She grabbed her manager’s keys and nametag lanyard from around her neck, put it over my head and said: “Run.”
It had been a long day at work, I’d been standing in line for 3 hours in my work clothes and shoes, and I am not, I repeat not, a runner. But I can tell you that I ran. Ran to the back of the store, let out by the police, ran around the building, out to my car and and back to the front door. The police barred my entrance, but “my” nametag and keys to the building convinced them to let me pass. And yes, this time I had the right book.
By the time I got back, my friend was almost at the front of the line where J. K. Rowling herself was, sitting at table and signing book after book at a breakneck pace. I joined my friend in line, feeling both victorious, and like a total dork. But within minutes, I was in front of Rowling herself, holding my book open to the pre-determined page, where she would sign her name. (Just her name. No date, no personalization. Fine by me.) I may have said something to her, of the generic type, like “I really love your books.” I remember that she looked up at me, and smiled a half smile. Her eyes looked tired. And then it was over. I was now the proud owner of a signed first printing of the first American edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
As it turned out, when Rowling finished signing the books for the customer’s standing in line, she was finished signing. She didn’t sign any books for the employees working in the store, including a friend of mine who was still working at the big store, and who also had a first printing of Sorcerer’s Stone. While I can understand that she was tired, and had just signed her name an unbelievable 600 times in less than 2 hours, it did seem pretty shabby to me to refuse to sign another 20 or so books for the people who worked in the store. But that is how the cookie crumbled.
My friend with the first of the first book sold hers, the unsigned, first printing of Sorcerer’s, for $1000 on ebay shortly after that.
I’ve kept mine, and the value has continued to go up.
Had the big store taken me up on my offer to work the event, I would have lost out. Had I not had my “connections” at the store, though, I would have ended up getting my second book signed, which would have been worth a few hundred dollars. But as it turned out, a ten dollar purchase, a few hours in line, and quick sprint around a large building have landed me with a book that I’ve seen selling for between $2500 and $5000 dollars. My copy’s been read, so may not be in pristine condition, though I would say it’s “near fine.” So it would probably go for the lower end.
Still, not such a bad return.