Potter without the panic

The wait for Harry's latest release goes much more smoothly this time

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By DIANA OLESZCZUK

A group of kids decked out in wizard capes closed their eyes and held their noses as Beth Swaggerty of Camille et Famille stirred a pot of feathers and potpourri and led a rhyming "incantation" for a Harry Potter-inspired flying spell. Led by Swaggerty, the kids spun around three times.

As they opened their eyes, Swaggerty leaned on the table for support. "I feel a bit lighter, don't you?" she grinned. Then she warned the kids to make sure they were tucked into bed tightly tonight, so they wouldn't accidentally end up on the ceiling.

Pointed hats and Hogwarts uniforms were common sights on the Avenue Friday night, when Camille's and several other stores joined the celebration anticipating the midnight release of the sixth Potter book. This year, festivities expanded beyond Oak Park Avenue to Mills and Scoville parks, as well as Cheney Mansion and Pleasant Home, and staggered throughout the afternoon and evening in a successful effort to spread out the crowds.

An estimated 6-7,000 people showed up for the festivities, according to Rich Carollo, president and CEO of the Oak Park Area Convention and Visitor's Bureau, which organized and sponsored the event, along with Magic Tree Bookstore. Of the allotted 1,000 copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Magic Tree has sold many of the 608 preorders and 177 other copies since midnight on Saturday.

News outlets showed up in droves for the occasion. TV-star wannabes could get on camera through ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX. Two radio stations, the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times came to Magic Tree to cover the book release. Although it didn't make The New York Times, Time magazine or Newsweek as the event did in 2003, co-owner Rose Joseph shepherded curious camera crews to the back of the store to see the boxes of books several times throughout the day.

"I think it was a lot saner [than last time]," Joseph said. "I think families with small children enjoyed it better, and I think people were able to do more things." Although it didn't have quite the same charged atmosphere of 2003, when Oak Park was the only town doing anything like this, "It was still fun," Joseph said.

"I think it went fantastic," Carollo said. "I don't think we lost anybody [who came to] the last event. It was spread out more appropriately. We didn't have to close the street. There wasn't a massive crowd of people." Packing people into Scoville Park and the other locations instead of a single block of Oak Park Avenue made the difference, Carollo said.

"Keeping it smaller, a little nicer, in the neighborhood is good," said Amanda Kowalski, a Quidditch volunteer. Quidditch, a wizard game which required kids to waddle around with brooms between their legs and throw balls through a suspended hula hoop, drew about 150 kids this year, she said.

Caroline Stankovich, a volunteer coach and the mom of Anna, 10, and John, 8, said her team was on the receiving end of a few puzzled looks as they ran around on brooms, practicing at the park. "They've been really excited," she said. "What's better for a boy than to be on a broom, running after a ball?"

Frank Wappell, from Orland Park, took the day off work to bring his daughter Karissa, 10, to the celebration. "I'm glad I did," he said. "This is wonderful, very realistic." He also observed that the event was "amazingly organized."

Hogwarts classes were an outlet for many enthusiastic volunteers. Despite an attack of laryngitis, Barbara Zimmerman impersonated Professor Trelawney and read tea leaves for about 120 kids as part of a divination class. "I wasn't about to give my part away to anybody," she said. "I'm a ham, what can you say?"

Potter was a good excuse to get people inside Pleasant Home, said Georgia Kmetz, a program manager at the home who helped with the tea. "We're always trying to get people in here to see what's in their own backyard," she said. A few younger kids really seemed to believe it was the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry as they wandered through, she added.

Restaurants and shops also caught the Potter spirit. Winberie's Restaurant, which had a special stand in the back of the shop for butterbeer and cauldron cakes, served 675 tables on Friday night, an all-time high. "It's a fun chaos," said Charles Vales, the executive chef, who spent the night doling out Potter goodies.

The workers at Great Harvest Bread Company dressed up as the house-elves from the book, gave out S.P.E.W. stickers (Society for the Protection of Elvish Welfare, an activist group started by Harry's friend Hermione Granger) and begged for customers to throw them extra articles of clothing to set them free. "I feel like a house-elf," said Cathy Yen, one of the shop's owners, as she performed for the customers. "I've been up since 4 a.m. baking bread."

For the Harry Potter fans in Oak Park, this was a night to unite. As Karissa Wappell put it, "It's nice to know that you're not the only freak who loves Harry Potter and would read it every day."

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