When King St. Becomes Diagon Alley

When King St. Becomes Diagon Alley

As Old Town prepares for Potter mania, book store are ready to bid farewell to Harry.

Emily Griffin is as "old school" as a fan of a 9-year-old series of books can be, having read about Harry Potter and Hermione Granger and the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry well before they were all cemented in popular culture.

Since then, Griffin has had an experience akin to hearing her favorite garage band played on the radio for the first time: what was once personal is now shared with a global populace. "I like to try and be morally superior, and say I have the first edition," she said with a laugh.

Griffin, 21, lives in Alexandria and works at A Likely Story Children’s Bookstore on 1555 King St. This weekend, it will be the epicenter for a massive street festival starting at 8 p.m. on Friday, July 20, involving nearly two dozen local businesses — building up to the 12 a.m., July 21 release of author J.K. Rowling’s "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," which she says will be the final book in the series.

According to industry sources, booksellers are estimating that 7 million copies will be sold worldwide in the first 24 hours of release.

"It’s been such a phenomenon," said Dinah Paul, owner of A Likely Story. "What’s so exciting is to see kids so excited about the written word."

Paul, who lives in Alexandria, has owned the store for three and half years. She said the release parties have steadily gotten more popular and elaborate — from fans crammed shoulder-to-shoulder inside the bookstore to 400 Potter-philes partying at the Amtrak station.

This time, the business community has embraced what could be the final Potter party, turning King Street into a virtual "Diagon Alley," a magical avenue from the books full of wizardly window shopping.

Gold Works (1400 King St.) will be handing out "money" inspired by the books and timed tickets for Gadsby’s Tavern (138 North Royal St.). Kingsbury Chocolates (1017 King St.) will sell chocolate frogs, Candi’s Candies (107 North Fairfax St.) will sell Harry Potter-inspired candy, while the Sugar Cube (210 North Lee St.) will sell Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans. Alexandria Union Station will be filled with music from the Alexandria Symphony, as well as costume contests, wizards’ chess and a "Defense Against the Dark Arts" martial arts demonstration from Beryong Dojohn in Del Ray from 8 – 9 p.m. (See sidebar for more.)

At A Likely Story, there will be entertainment throughout the evening before pre-ordered copies of "The Deathly Hallows" will be distributed at midnight. Visit www.alikelystorybooks.com for more information on the book and the event.

While she expects many books to be moved, Paul said the entire evening is a celebration of the beloved series that has gotten so many young readers hooked on books.

"In the beginning, it was a good monetary boom — I’m not going to lie. But with the size of the party we throw, we don’t make that much money off the book. But to have a whole community talking about a book is great for our store," she said.

ELIZABETH LEE works at A Likely Story, often talking with parents about the wall-to-wall children’s books available. She said the Harry Potter series hasn’t sparked much controversy, despite some increasingly mature storylines and thematic conflicts with organized religions. "Too many years have gone by, so we don’t have to give a defense of the book anymore," she said.

Lee, who lives in Alexandria, grew up in a family where books from Tolkien and other similar authors were taboo because of clashes with their belief system. "We believe in the supernatural as a reality, so we didn’t want to give it attributes that it didn’t have," she said.

During the early years of the Potter phenomenon, the books’ magic and wizardry were a point of concern for some parents. "Some people, when we showed it to them, weren’t interested. There are people who won’t buy a book that has wizardry," said Trish Brown of A Likely Story.

Lee gradually learned that the Potter books are less about the supernatural and more about universal themes. "I heard thoughtful people say that these books are not [about] the occult. They’re about the exploration of the ethical use of power. Rowling did a great job of making the first book fun, but the older they get the more important these questions become," she said.

Rowling herself has helped keep the books’ intentions and politics shrouded in mystery, having avoiding the spotlight and questions about her own beliefs. "We don’t know if she has a Tolkien agenda or a [C.S.] Lewis agenda," said Lee. "She can just write great literature without people picking apart her personal life. Whether she’s an evangelical or an atheist, there are people who aren’t going to like her at all."

When it comes to authors like Tolkien and Lewis, Lee believes the massive success of the Potter series helped resurrect interest in their works.

"I think that Rowling’s success is what triggered the re-release of the ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ and the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. It became commercially viable. I don’t think they would have been revisited if Rowling didn’t re-energize the whole genre," she said. "We’ve been told that kids are reading Harry Potter who aren’t really readers, but are reading because all the other kids are. They started reading Harry Potter, and that got them reading other things in general."

Indeed, one look around A Likely Story finds recent books with more than a passing resemblance to Rowling’s. "I keep picking up other books to read. I’ll be excited by the premise, but they just can’t write like Rowling, or it’s just so obvious they’re trying to do [the same thing], only not so well," said Lee.

Paul agreed. "I appreciate that J.K. has created an audience for fantasy. I haven’t yet seen a book that’s going to fill the void," she said. "I applaud her broadening readers’ horizons. Hopefully, kids will keep reading."

PAUL BEGAN reading about Harry Potter in Book 4, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," acknowledging she picked up the story in "an already dark place." She expects it could get darker: Paul is in the camp of Potter fans who expect the boy wizard won’t survive Rowling’s final pages.

Then again, will they be Rowling’s final pages? Will she write about this world again?

"I wish she would," said Paul. "I feel really bad for J.K. in a way. What pressure to live with, to have created this series. I don’t think she can pick it up again. Once you say [you won’t], you have to stick with that. They’ve said she might do an encyclopedia of magic, and if she did, that would be cool."

Paul believes that after the final book is released and the last movie is screened — in 2010, according to Warner Bros. — there will be an inevitable dip in popularity for the series. But just like 1980s kitsch like Transformers and the Care Bears are making a comeback today, she expects Harry Potter will ride a similar wave of nostalgia.

"I think that when the kids who fell in love with Harry Potter at a young age start having kids of their own, they’re going to bring it back."