Time for magic
Harry Potter, GJ bookstore mark 20th anniversaries
There once was a time before Harry Potter, although it’s hard to remember.
There was no “The Boy Who Lived” or Muggles, lightning bolt scars or “You Know Who.”
There were no holdouts proudly announcing, “I haven’t read it!” followed by a nose-in-the-air sniff.
The summer of 1997 was hot, but that was the norm in Grand Junction.
Bill Clinton was in the first year of his second term as president. Mother Teresa and Princess Diana were alive, and text messaging was a novel idea.
The doors to the new Barnes & Noble Booksellers store had been open for just nine days when it quietly happened: “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” by J.K. Rowling was released on June 26, 1997, in the United Kingdom.
It would be more than a year before the American edition, titled “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” would be released. And so on this day 20 years ago, residents of western Colorado were quite unaware of Harry Potter.
Despite the distance between Colorado and the United Kingdom, not long after the book’s release, “I started hearing about it,” said Janet Arsenault, Barnes & Noble store manager.
When the Barnes & Noble opened on June 17, 1997, she moved over from the B. Dalton Bookseller store, which was owned by the same company and located in Mesa Mall.
Around the Grand Valley, the economy was picking up a bit post-oil shale bust, and “people were really excited to have a big bookstore,” Arsenault said.
The cafe was the only place in town that offered Starbucks coffee, and “we used to have a line to the door every day,” she said.
One particular customer corresponded regularly with someone in England, heard about the Harry Potter book and asked Arsenault about it.
Internet access and the flow of information were glacial then compared to what they are now, so it was hard to find anything about some “Philosopher’s Stone” book, she said.
When the “Sorcerer’s Stone” finally arrived in the store in September of 1998, it came with amazing reviews, but no other grand fanfare. “I thought it was just another children’s book,” Arsenault said.
It was the last time she ever thought that.
Adults, teens and children snatched up “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” They were enthralled with shopping at Diagon Alley or walking on the moving staircases inside a castle-like school named Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry or playing Quidditch on tricked-out broomsticks.
Bryan Carlson and Stephanie Benson, both now 27, met Harry Potter shortly after copies of “Sorcerer’s Stone” arrived in the town.
Carlson’s dad, who had just finished reading “The Hobbit” to Carlson and his two siblings, heard about the “Sorcerer’s Stone” and decided it would be their next family story-time book.
Likewise, Benson’s mom read the book to Benson and her younger sister. Her mom was finishing her degree at what was then Mesa State College and when her classmates would come over, they would all talk about Harry Potter.
“We felt so sophisticated” discussing Harry Potter with grown-ups, Benson said.
“I’ve always been a fan of fantasy books,” she said, but as a child what struck her about “Sorcerer’s Stone” was that “these kids were my age. They’re younger kids and they still get to have all these adventures and they get to be the heroes of the story.”
Benson also liked that Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger weren’t perfect. They didn’t always do what they were told, and they procrastinated on homework.
For Carlson, the attraction was pure magic.
“It was magic for our time. ‘The Hobbit’ exists in a completely different world ... but (Harry Potter) is set in our world and is close to modern times,” he said.
He liked that Rowling explained how magic was used to do things.
“As a kid it made me think that magic was kind of possible,” he said.
And for a time he was extremely upset that an owl hadn’t delivered a letter announcing he was accepted to Hogwarts. Perhaps he was a non-magical Muggle?
“I knew it was a story ... but I was still super disappointed,” Carlson said.
The U.S. release of the second book in the series, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” came on June 2, 1999.
The third book, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” quickly followed on Sept. 8, 1999, and the Barnes & Noble store had its first midnight release party.
“We had no idea what we were doing,” Arsenault said. “So many kids. So many grown-ups. ... We were figuring it out on the go.”
Fans came dressed in wizard robes, with glasses and lightning bolt scars, and filled the store. If the fire department had shown up they probably would have shut the party down, she said.
Carlson and his family were among those who attended the Barnes & Noble release parties for “Prisoner of Azkaban” and the books that followed. He recalled making a wand and running around the store, yelling spells at the other kids.
The store had a drawing to determine who would be the first person to receive a copy of the new book. The boy whose name was drawn couldn’t have been more than 8 years old and was dressed like Harry Potter, Arsenault said.
“Have you read the other two books?” Arsenault asked him.
“Oh yeah,” he replied. “I read them twice.”
When he was handed his copy of “Prisoner of Azkaban” at midnight, “he was so cute. He was hugging the book like it was a jewel he’d gotten ... that’s just heart-warming to see,” Arsenault said.
Benson also went to the parties at Barnes & Noble and at the Borders bookstore that used to be in Grand Mesa Center.
The book releases always seemed to be near her sister’s birthday, so her sister would receive the new book as a gift and get to read it first, she said.
But the best part about the parties was the camaraderie of being with other fans, talking about what you hoped would happen in the new book and your favorite characters, Benson said.
She identified most with Hermione, “especially as I got older and my hair got curlier,” she said. “I was a bookworm and I really did enjoy school, and I would be disappointed when I didn’t get that perfect A-plus on an assignment.”
Carlson and Benson quickly moved beyond the family story times that introduced them to Harry Potter, to reading the books on their own.
“My dad would inflect voices, he would say names a certain way that, when I was reading it, didn’t make as much sense to me,” Carlson said.
At first, the characters had a little bit of his dad’s voice with them, and then Carlson stepped into his own voice as a reader.
Arsenault noticed this changed in other children as well. As they grew up with Harry Potter, “they developed into real readers,” she said.
Before Harry Potter, parents would come into the store and pick out a book for their child to read. After the Harry Potter phenomenon took off, more kids picked out their own books.
And there were other changes.
“In kids’ books, generally, there is a very clear right and wrong — you’re a good guy or a bad guy — and Harry Potter broke that mold. That was the first kids’ book I saw that did that, popular kids’ book,” Arsenault said.
“That was so brilliant. (Rowling) treated kids like adults, on their level. She respected their intellect. Just because you’re a kid doesn’t mean you’re stupid.”
Harry Potter also changed what many adults were willing to read, Arsenault said.
It used to be that if an adult was told the book they wanted was in the children’s department, Arsenault would get the response, “Oh no. No, I don’t want that,” or “I don’t read teen books.”
“Now, they don’t care,” she said.
Carlson and Benson were high school-age when the seventh book in the series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” was released on July 21, 2007, and now they both work at Barnes & Noble.
Carlson is the cafe manager, and last year he mixed “potions” and took on the role of fortune teller during the store’s release party for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”
Benson is the head cashier and helped plan the release parties for “Cursed Child” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”
It was fun to see readers who loved Harry Potter as children bring their own kids to those parties, Benson said.
“It’s so cool that you can have that as a family,” she said.
Benson has read the Harry Potter series five or six times and has found her perspective has definitely altered with adulthood and as her husband reads the series for the first time.
As a child, her focus was on the fun the characters were having. As an adult, the books became darker and she realized, “these children are dealing with some really big issues here.”
Benson also appreciates the books’ adult characters more, particularly transfiguration Professor Minerva McGonagall.
“She’s very strict and wants her students to perform well and at least give their best effort. At the same time, she wants them to enjoy their childhood,” she said.
The Harry Potter books hold plenty of relatable situations for readers of any age, she said.
There’s the intense friendships found in childhood, the awkwardness of the early teen years, and nearly everyone has at some point dealt with a mean and opportunistic person like Dolores Umbridge.
“They could be everyday people if they didn’t have wands,” Benson said.
On June 17, the Grand Junction Barnes & Noble celebrated its 20th anniversary with cake and roasted Arsenault and two other employees who have been at the store since it opened.
Carlson was the roast master.
Down one of the store’s aisles, a table prominently displayed Harry Potter books, re-releases and illustrated versions, as well as other items connected with the series.
Most books are popular for a while, then fade away, Arsenault said. But not the Harry Potter series.
While there have been times when the series hasn’t been displayed as conspicuously, that’s more the exception than the rule.
“It always sells,” she said.
That’s another thing about children’s books, she said. There are always kids just reaching the age and reading ability to discover them.
Amazingly, there may even be a child who walks into the bookstore today, quite unaware of who Harry Potter really is. Perhaps they’ve heard of him or seen a drawing on a book cover, but that’s about it.
But today, this child opens “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and reads, “Chapter One. The Boy Who Lived…”
And he or she will no longer want to remember a time without him.