Fans flock to bookstores for final Potter

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LONDON -- At midnight, like magic, Harry Potter appeared.

Like castles lowering their drawbridges, bookstores across Britain and as far away as Singapore and Sydney, unveiled their copies of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," the seventh and final volume of the young wizard's adventures.

Eager readers, many of whom had lined up for hours, rushed from the tills, opening the thick hardback book to take in the opening words: "The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane."

Inside were answers readers have waited long to learn -- and that J.K. Rowling and her publishers have labored, with mixed results, to keep secret. Will Harry kill evil Lord Voldemort, or die in the attempt? Who will be slain in the battle between the good guys and the wicked Death Eaters? And what are deathly hallows, anyway?

"It's all that matters to him, to get this book -- he couldn't eat or sleep," mother Laura Helmy said of her 15-year-old son, Bobby, who purchased the novel at midnight in central London.

The family, from Northfield, Ill., had been vacationing in Paris but hopped on the Eurostar to London for the day.

Shops throughout the world were putting the book on sale at the same time -- a minute past midnight British time (7:01 p.m. EDT Friday). Readers in the United States have to wait until midnight strikes in each time zone, from 12:01 a.m. EDT Saturday.

Rowling, who a decade ago introduced her magical character in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," was giving a midnight reading to 500 competition-winning children in the grand Victorian surroundings of London's Natural History Museum. She sat in a large wing-backed chair and read the opening pages -- description of a mysterious assignation, a clandestine meeting and important news for Voldemort.

For many of the hardcore Potter-maniacs, the place to be was Waterstone's bookstore on Piccadilly in central London. More than 5,000 people lined up for hours before the midnight opening, in a festive, colorful line stretching around the block. Among the fans from as far away as Finland and Mexico were dozens of witches and wizards, a couple of house elves, a pair of owls and a woman dressed as Hogwarts castle.

Ken Zwier, 42, from Phoenix, Ariz., grew and bleached his hair to achieve the golden tresses of villain Lucius Malfoy.

"Tomorrow I'm buzzing it all off. It's been a couple of years," said Zwier, who was lining up with his wife and two daughters -- all in costume. The family planned to read the book aloud to one another on their flight back to the United States Saturday. They said anyone who complained would be offered ear plugs.

Waiters at a bookstore in downtown Rome served customers colorful Potter-themed cocktails, a green one called "Serpeverde" -- Italian for Slytherin -- and an orange one named "Grifondoro" -- Gryffindor.

The passion for Potter was almost life-threatening. In Canberra, Australia, a 21-year-old man jumped into the frigid waters of the city's central Lake Burley Griffin on Friday afternoon to retrieve a pre-order voucher he had dropped. Paramedics arriving at the scene found the man shivering and distressed -- and without the voucher, Emergency Services spokesman Darren Cutrupi said. He was given another voucher by the bookstore.

Rowling's books about the bespectacled orphan with the lightning-bolt scar have sold 325 million copies in 64 languages, and the launch of each new volume has become a Hollywood-scale extravaganza.

"Deathly Hallows" has a print run of 12 million in the United States alone, and Internet retailer Amazon says it has taken 2.2 million orders for the book. Britain's Royal Mail says it will deliver 600,000 copies on Saturday; the U.S. Postal Service says it will ship 1.8 million.

From London to Los Angeles, Potter-mania spans the globe. Tel Aviv's Steimatzky bookstore was due to open at 2:01 a.m. local time Saturday, defying criticism from Orthodox Jewish lawmakers for opening on the Sabbath, when the law requires most businesses in Israel to close.

In India, stores were opening at dawn for special Harry Potter parties. In Bangkok, British ambassador David Fall was to hand over Thailand's first official copy of "Deathly Hallows" to the first customer in line at the Emporium Shopping Complex. The mall was decked out with a recreation of King's Cross Station's platform 9 3/4, where Harry and friends catch the Hogwarts Express to school.

Phnom Penh's Monument Books -- Cambodia's only outlet for the book -- expected its allotment of 224 copies to sell out within hours.

Enthusiasts, some rereading previous Potter volumes, lined up in sunshine outside book stores in Los Angeles. In New York, a clock outside a Barnes & Noble store counted down to the midnight launch, publishing's version of a trip to the moon.

Portland, Maine, was going all-out with a 12-hour Mugglefest to celebrate the book's launch. Fans wearing cloaks and carrying wands were riding the Hogwarts Express into a re-creation of King's Cross station, and an old red-brick warehouse foundry along the city's waterfront was converted into the magical shopping street Diagon Alley.

Across Latin America, bookstores were staying open late for the Potter faithful.

Mexico City's Gandhi bookstore planned to keep the party going on all weekend, with showings of the movies and readings in Spanish of excerpts from the book, quickly translated by "Mexico's Club de Fans de Harry Potter."

Security for the launch was fist-tight, with books shipped in sealed pallets and legal contracts binding stores not to sell the book before the midnight release time.

But despite pleas from Rowling and leading fan sites, spoilers sprouted on the Internet in the days before the release, including photographed images of what turned out to be all 700-plus pages of the book's U.S. edition.

In France, the daily Le Parisien revealed how the final installment ends, in a small article which it printed upside down. The book's French publishing house, Gallimard Jeunesse, condemned the newspaper's revelation, saying it showed "a total lack of respect for J.K. Rowling" and "disdain for readers."

As many as 1,200 copies were shipped early in the United States by an online retailer, and two U.S. newspapers published reviews Wednesday, more than two days ahead of the official release.

Rowling said she was "staggered" by the embargo-busting reviews and called on fans to preserve the secrecy of the plot.

But she had little reason to complain about what critics actually said. "Deathly Hallows" has received universal raves, with The New York Times and The Associated Press among those praising it as a worthy conclusion to a classic series.

Fifteen-year-old Patrick Atkins of Twinsburg, Ohio, thought Harry would survive the final book, believing Rowling would come up with an unexpected ending. He avoided the Internet spoilers, as did Wayne Kelley, who walked through downtown Hudson, Ohio, dressed, quite convincingly, as snide Severus Snape.

"I will wait until I have the actual book in my hands," he said.
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