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Powerful spell

Culture | When is the release of a book an international cultural event? When the book is the latest Harry Potter installment. Costumed fans descended upon bookstores on July 15-16 and made Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the fastest-selling book ever

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The debate still rages about the value of Harry Potter books as children's reading, but no one can deny that J.K. Rowling's fantasy creation has captured the minds of millions of children and adults, creating in the process a cultural phenomenon powerful enough to entice scads of folks to dress up in costume and wait hours for a book they've already reserved.

In the United States and in Great Britain, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince sold 9 million copies in the first 24 hours after going on sale July 16. That makes the sixth book in the series the fastest-selling book of any kind ever-and at thousands of bookstores, the midnight release was this year's major event.

Take, for example, festivities at three bookstores deep in the heart of Texas. Outside BookPeople in Austin, 5-year-olds in witches' hats waited in line atop their fathers' shoulders. Older fans dressed as everything from the Prisoner of Azkaban to Harry Potter himself milled about to get free ice cream or fountain drinks, specially renamed as dragon fire and butter beer (cream soda) in honor of the occasion. Other attractions included free Tarot reading, magic tricks by a purported "real wizard," and a performance by "Svetlana the Romanian" of a Dance of Flame that involved her twirling fiery chains around her body.

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Lindsay Swem, 22, who started reading Potter books two years ago, arrived early enough to claim a spot near the front of the line. Ms. Swem, a self-proclaimed pagan, initially feared that the books would poke fun at her occult practices, but was pleasantly surprised. Recent college graduate Jonathan Rybander, wearing black wire-rimmed glasses and his commencement gown, said he appreciated the books because they were fast-moving compared to university textbooks. "They make you go back 15 years to the kind of books your parents would read you."

At Barnes & Noble in The Woodlands, Texas, near Houston, over 2,000 often-costumed Potter loyalists lurked in aisles and stood in line outside. Some rode the escalators up and down, with their capes billowing behind them and lightning bolts etched on their foreheads. Parents brought young children, and one little girl curled up on the floor asleep with a black cape covering her small frame. As people glanced down at the child, her mother said defensively, "She's OK. She's just been at camp all week."

Mary Ramsower, mother of a 6-year-old, said she pre-ordered her book the minute she found out it would be on sale. She said that during last year's pre-sale party she waited for three hours while running a 102-degree fever, but this year she's healthy and her entire family has joined the Potter craze: "My husband, who never reads, has read all of them. . . . My son hasn't read them yet, but he's seen all the movies." She said she wasn't concerned about possible negative effects of the books on children: "I'm a Christian. I'm not an extremist."

At a San Antonio Barnes & Noble, most fans came in either wizard school uniforms or T-shirts adorned with their favorite character. Matthew Lawlis, 12, passed the time until midnight with his two brothers and mother by completing a Harry Potter puzzle and thinking about the new book: "I'm going to stay up all night to read it." The store's communication relations manager, Lee Kraus, called herself a "fan slash freak" and said she had already taken four days off work to read the book.

A boy in a cape brandished his wand at adult Sean Moore and pronounced a Potter light-creating spell: "Luminos!" Mr. Moore, wearing his graduation robe accessorized with wizard hat, responded by lifting his own wand, a superior version that makes sounds. "My magic wand makes noises," he said, smiling. His wife, who had spent the evening holding his hand and browsing the store, laughed and said, "It's a test of marriage."

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