The King’s English Bookshop was early to the Harry Potter craze. Early, at least, for an independent bookstore 5,000 miles away from J.K. Rowling’s home base.
“I remember very clearly the beginning of it,” said Margaret Neville, manager of the store’s children’s room. “At that time, the current children’s buyer had made several trips to England and she had come home with the first two books. But we still couldn’t get them here.”
Although “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” was published in the U.K. on June 26, 1997, it didn’t reach the United States until September 1998, where it was published as “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” by Scholastic Corporation. By the time the U.S. got a hold of the book series, Rowling had already published two books and some of the first novel’s British slang had been translated to better appeal to an American audience.
The King’s English Bookshop employees were thrilled to bring the budding series to their readers.
“I really think right from the get-go there were certainly people asking for them in our store,” Neville said. “We loved them. … It was really a lot of fun. And then (the series) built up steam. It just got better and better as far as the excitement went.”
And with the releases of new books, the King’s English Bookshop got in on the fun, holding midnight release parties of its own. The store’s midnight releases drew hundreds, even thousands, of people, some young, some old, some in costumes, all delighted to find out where Harry ended up next.
“I have very vivid memories of coming down the street to the King’s English to celebrate the release of every book,” said Will Eakland, a former King’s English frequenter who now works at the store as a bookseller. “It was a lot of fun. Plus, once you leave the party, you’re staying up all night. You’re afraid that if you go to school tomorrow, someone’s going to tell you something that happened. You kind of had to have a leg up on the competition.”
At 26, Eakland was always close to Harry’s age when the books were released. He’s not entirely sure what caused the series to become such a global phenomenon, but he thinks he knows what drew him — and his generation — to Harry Potter’s world.
“When I was first getting into reading, we had this whole new world with kids my age that I could grow up with,” he said. “As the books evolved and got a little more serious and severe, it sort of echoed my life as I was growing up from a kid turning into a teenager. The whole idea of a magical school when you’re suffering through middle school and high school is sort of a beautiful escape.”
Rachel Haisley, another King’s English employee, is the same age as Eakland. But her view of what Chicago reporter Tucker Ernest called “Pottermania” is a little different.
“My number one thing about J.K. Rowling is that I think she knows her motifs. She knows her construction of fairy tales. She’s got her Chaucer down really well,” Haisley said. “So not only is it a really fun novel that is well-paced and engaging and funny and interesting, but it’s also something that adults can look at and say, ‘Hey, I see all these things that I studied in school in this.’”
Considering all the longstanding hubbub surrounding the best-selling series, one would think that by now, everyone would have at least heard of Harry Potter. But according to Haisley, that’s not necessarily true. Even in its 20th year, Harry Potter is still attracting new readers and fans.
“Being in bookselling for so long, you think that you’ve given it to everybody, that you’ve told everyone about it,” Haisley said. “And all of the sudden, you realize that there’s this whole new generation of kids who are coming up and aging into it. … I love it when they kind of fall into it themselves. When they come up and say, ‘Hey, do you think I should read this?’ That takes a lot of trust. It’s really a beautiful moment to share with somebody, to help them figure that out and negotiate new things.”
With the help of Harry’s new readers and the continuing “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” films, the enthusiasm surrounding Rowling’s magical world isn’t likely to die down soon. Or maybe ever. Harry Potter managed, improbably, to unite generations and countries over shared enthusiasm for the story of an 11-year-old orphan and his friends.
To the King’s English Bookshop employees, that could only be considered some sort of wonderful miracle.
“Harry Potter’s just been a gift,” Neville said. “I believe personally that reading makes you a better person. … I really do think reading is life-changing, and Harry Potter reminded all the grown-ups of that on some level. And that is a phenomenally powerful thing.”