Orville Hector | Daily TidingsRiver Johnson holds his copy of the new 'Harry Potter' book at the Tree House Book Store in Ashland on Saturday. FRONT: Vivianna Juncal reads her book while waiting for her mother outside of Bloomsbury books early Saturday.

As midnight approached, Ashland buzzed. Not with the late-night dinner-club crowd, but with people, large and small, queued up, two and three deep, filling the sidewalks in front of Tree House Book Store on the Plaza and Bloomsbury Books on Main Street. Many were in costumes, Muggles in black capes, small and not so small wizards wearing black coned hats covered in silver stars, some wearing round peepers, wands at the ready. Potter-heads all.

This was the witching hour and there was magic in the air &

a palatable excitement, a blend of New Year's Eve, Halloween, and the Fourth of July. Harry Potter would soon arrive &

in the form of a 784-page hardback book with Harry on the cover wearing his black Hogwarts' robe, his face appearing distressed, one hand raised skyward.

Titled, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," this would be the seventh and the last in a series of books which began in 1998, with "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," and has continued since. To a person, those waiting felt a mixture of barely contained anticipation, and a residual sadness at having to say a final goodbye when the last page of "Deathly Hallows" was turned. This was the end of a great adventure that had given a delicious texture to the last nine years.

Ursula Petersen, 14, in line with her mother in front of Tree House Books, said: "I've been waiting, like, for a year for this book. The minute I get it, I'm going to go home and start reading." When asked how she thought it might end &

Potter fans have been speculating about possible concluding scenarios, many worried that Harry might die in the end &

Pertersen said: "I kinda think Harry might die, but I really don't want that. You can't kill Harry off. That would be the worst day of my life."

Martha Cotton, with her two daughters, Sarah and Virginia, all in costume, waited patiently as the game clock ticked away. Her older son, she said, was up at Bloomsbury Books getting his own copy. "We're going to read it out loud," Cotton said. Sarah, who had read them all, said: "Oh my gosh, I love these books. They're so awesome. It's not some video game. It's about a whole different world. I'm so excited about this book."

A car, cruising slowly along Main Street, filled with older teens, passed Bloomsbury Books and a kid leaned out his window and yelled at the overflowing crowd, "It's only a book."

Well, he would be right, but he would also be oh so wrong.

The impact of the Potter books transcends any known literary event. It's a cultural tsunami, and Potter himself a contemporary phenom who has broken all publishing records. The numbers are staggering. Twelve million copies of book seven were printed for the U.S. alone. Thus far, the books have sold more than 325 million copies in 64 languages worldwide, making J.K. Rowling richer than the Queen of England. Pundits and professors are still positing hypotheses about why young readers have so completely embraced the series, which was originally published as a children's book (barely 300 pages) by British publisher Bloomsbury and American publisher Scholastic Press. It didn't take long for both houses to realize that this was not simply one among many children's titles released in '98, but a rocket extraordinaire.

While the scene at Tree House Books had kids and parents forming a long sidewalk line to enter through the front door at 12:01 a.m. &

many, like Kachina Rowland and Kriya Krisnabai, both 16, had arrived three hours early and set up lawn chairs, saying emphatically, "We love the books!" &

the scene at Bloomsbury Books was entirely different. Opening their doors well in advance of the 12:01 a.m. deadline, the store was packed with small wizards and an odd assortment of Muggles, all there to pick up books as well as to listen to Michael Hume, Shakespearean actor from OSF, who, dressed as Dumbledore (a stunning likeness), the headmaster of Hogwarts, spoke from the second story balcony to the assembled, and then read an excerpt from the last chapter of book six.

Outside, waiting in line, was Steve Thomas, 52, wearing a cape and English bowler hat, who has read all of the books with his kids, who are now 17, 18 and 22. "We've bought all the books since the series started, and the tapes."

Celeste Litherland, also in the Bloomsbury line, was there with two youngsters, Zoe Klein and Harley Coplin. All were in costume. "Anyone from ages 6 to 88 can read these books. Zoe's grandmother is reading one right now so she can talk to us about them. I've read Zoe all of the books," Litherland said.

Bloomsbury Books also used the countdown to announce the winners of their Harry Potter Broomstick Competition. Kyle Storie won in the 6-to-9 age group; Alexander Barnes in the 10-to-13 category; and Genevieve Harding, Jeffrey Star, Natasha Barnes and Justin Williams pooled their talents and won in the 16-to-17 group.

The following day, Karen Chapman, co-owner of Bloomsbury, and Anita Isser, manager, looking a bit bleary-eyed, said that the book store had sold out the night before. They had ordered 500 copies and, Chapman said: "We were worried we'd ordered too many. We have to try and estimate pretty early." They will have more copies on hand shortly, Isser said.

Muriel Johnson, owner of Tree House Books, declared the late-night sale a huge success, complimented by the "Night Bus" that sat out front, the cookies and punch served to those who waited, as well as handing out 102 door prizes.

Melanie Crume, 24, exited Tree House Books shortly after midnight, holding her newly minted copy as if it were a sacred talisman, her face aglow, grinning with anticipation. Having read her first Potter book when she was 16, she said, "I've been waiting forever to see how this all ends." She's not alone.