Wizard of Quid

by Luke Baumgarten & r & If you want to sell something to kids, get J.K. Rowling to go to bat -- because she puts up some monster numbers. For example, according to Forbes, her fictional creation Harry Potter merely accounted for $2.8 billion in sales -- and that was just in 2003. Among literary characters that year, Harry trailed only the Lord of the Rings set, and only because The Return of the King grossed $1 billion worldwide. (There was no new Potter film in 2003.)

That means the bulk of Harry's sales came from hawking other people's products -- the Harry Potter name slapped on video games, Band-Aids, snot-flavored Jelly Bellies, action figures and cologne. Yes, cologne.

J.K. Rowling is a writer of children's stories -- but to Johnson & amp; Johnson, Hasbro, Warner Brothers, Scholastic and countless other companies, she's a cash cow.

There is little sign that Harry's popularity is flagging. Since the initial release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in 1997, Rowling has sold, on average, 85 thousand books a day. That's a pretty brisk pace, and it doesn't include pre-order sales of Half-Blood Prince, which topped 1 million on Amazon.com alone several weeks ago.

Perhaps sales of the books remain strong because Harry's original incarnation is consciously growing up and reaching out to broader -- and older -- audiences. The most recent books, for example, deal as much with adolescence as with spell-craft.

Local 13-year-old Delana Kromer has read all five books, but the activity seems to have taken its toll. Thirteen is an age when attentions often turn from sorcery to socialization, and Ms. Kromer bears the marks of a young woman on the run. "I lock the door and bolt it now-a-days when I read a Harry Potter book," she said, speaking candidly. To be fair, that's probably true of all books she reads, saying "I don't need people knowing about my interest in literature."

Reading, it seems, is social suicide for a middle schooler. Ms. Kromer confided that she makes every effort "to stay away from the kids who read [Harry Potter] openly."

Still, she likes the series and feels that it has grown with her. The fifth book, Order of the Phoenix, is her favorite so far because "it's much more controversial" compared to her old favorite, The Prisoner of Azkaban, which, in her youth, she enjoyed for its "adventurous factors."

Her older brother agrees. Ben, 24, says that, despite the broomsticks and incantations, "the book is about a bunch of kids," and carries a degree of "wish fulfillment" for "anyone who went to public school."

In that sense, Harry's latest struggles seem to mirror Delana's closely.

So maybe Harry's popularity isn't flagging so much as his fans' tastes are changing. That might mean a few less plastic wands sold, but sales of the books themselves are expected to be strong. In the end, Rowling's choice to have Harry grow into manhood may gain him lifelong fans at the expense of short-term sales numbers and merchandising possibilities.

From a public health standpoint, at least, a wizened Ms. Kromer someday passing the books down to her children is a more reassuring image than decades of vomit-flavored jelly beans.

At one minute past midnight on Saturday, the wait for The Half-Blood Prince ends. By morning, more than a million Amazon.com customers will wake up to the book in their mailboxes.

For those who don't think they can wait that long, almost every local bookstore is staying open late Friday night to sell the books at 12:01 am. They will offer a variety of games and activities to pass the time until the book goes on sale. Auntie's Bookstore will host a fantasy gala ($5 per child with book purchase, $3 per parent). It will feature live reptiles and spiders, a Quidditch World Cup on Playstation, a game room curated by Uncle's Games, treats from the Liberty Caf & eacute; and a costume contest judged by none other than local weather maven George Maupin. And River Park Square is hosting a Harry Potter event, too, with Children's Corner Bookshop, from 9 pm to midnight.

If Harry continues growing up and his demographic shifts enough, businesses might begin to rethink the kid-centric strategy. Perhaps by book VII we'll find beer gardens adjacent to the Quidditch Court or speed dating in lieu of petting zoos. But that's blasphemy, of course, and for now things remain as they are.

Auntie's cut-off age is 16, though, so Potter's older fans -- the ones who might identify most with The Half-Blood Prince -- will have to find their own place to pre-func.