CARRIE JOHNSON and BRADY DENNIS
Bedecked in witchy attire, Harry Potter fans converge on bookstores to await the new exploits of their boy hero.
ST. PETERSBURG - When it comes to Harry Potter, it would be difficult to find more hardcore fans than a trio of Seminole High School students.
To honor the release of the fifth book in J.K. Rowling's wildly popular series, Mallory Arents, Malorey Skidmore and Lauren Kobernick weren't content to dress as Harry or one of the other characters. They needed something with snob appeal.
"We wanted to do something different, so only people who had read the books over and over would know what we are," said Arents, 17.
The girls dressed as Mandrakes, killer plants featured in the second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. They sawed the bottoms off plastic planters and hung the planters from their shoulders with fishing wire. Fake ferns in their hair completed the look.
"We love Harry Potter," said Kobernick, 17. "We don't care what other people think."
The girls were among friends Friday night as they awaited the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at the Barnes & Noble near Tyrone Mall.
Potter fans of all ages gathered at the store to test their knowledge of Harry facts, play games and - most important - wait for copies of the book to be distributed at midnight.
"I've been counting down the days," gushed Rebeca Pupo, 12, a John Hopkins Middle School student who pre-ordered her copy in April. "I'm going to be up all night reading it."
The release of Phoenix was expected to be the biggest event in publishing history, with 8.5-million copies in the United States alone. More than 1-million advance copies had been ordered at Amazon.com.
Parties celebrating the latest face-off between Harry and evil Lord Voldemort were planned for locations throughout the world, including London, New York and Australia.
In Tampa, as if by magic, the rain let up as the witching hour approached.
And inside the Barnes & Noble bookstore at 213 N Dale Mabry Highway, the crowds swelled.
Employees wore pointed witch hats and capes, horn-rimmed glasses and lightning bolts painted on their foreheads.
Ginger Gonzalez, 15 years old and decked in full costume, said she plans to finish the book - all 900 pages - by tonight.
"I'm giving myself, at most, eight hours," she said.
At the St. Petersburg Barnes & Noble, children and adults, many wearing wizard hats and capes, browsed the aisles and chatted as they counted down the hours until midnight.
"I guess I've always been taught that magic can be real if you believe in it," said Allison Hand, 13, a home-schooled student from Largo.
The book, which retails at $29.99 and is the longest in the series at 896 pages, sparked controversy before the first copy was sold. Rowling and her American publisher, Scholastic, filed a lawsuit against the New York Daily News for publishing minor excerpts from the novel and giving away part of the plot.
In northern England this week, thieves carted off a truckload of books - more than 7,600 copies valued at $220,000.
This won't be the last time fans have an occasion to gather: Rowling is already working on a sixth Harry Potter novel. She plans to write a total of seven books about the adventures of Harry and his friends at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
The four previous Potter novels have sold more than 190-million copies in 55 languages and 200 countries.
The books have also spawned two successful movies, making Rowling one of the richest people in the world. Her fortune has been estimated at $444-million.
- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.