WASHINGTON &

Whatever it is (Radio Shack for rich people? The Sharpest Image?), the Apple Store isn't what it used to be, even a year or so ago. The initial thrills, the feelings of i-comfort and i-belonging, still await you behind its translucent facade, especially now, in the gizmodic spree of the Christmas season. But somewhere along the way, the zendo quality of the Apple Store changed.




The demi-privacy of it, the clubby feeling &

I know that you know that I know that we know and love Macs like nobody else does &

is fading away. Too much commotion. The ethereal, tranquil, spa vibe (the bath of white light, the polished concrete floors, the glint in the happy eyes of the geniuses at the Genius Bar) has been pierced by the sheer popularity of the place. The TV commercials worked. Mac Guy, even with his non-arrogant arrogance, is your real friend, and then he gathered too many friends, and suddenly he doesn't have time for them all.




Steve Jobs, Apple's CEO and bodhisattva, got what he wanted: the people. (A hundred million customers were lured to its stores in fiscal 2006-07, according to Apple, adding up to more than $4 billion in revenue.)




Apple shoppers are more than people, more than customers &

they are seekers




Those Apple marketing guys said all along they were building not just stores but serene communities of true believers and new converts. And so they did, and here we are, just 6 1/2 years later.




The Apple Store is the sound of very special toddlers yelling "Daddeeee, Daddeeee" as they are deposited in front of iMacs loaded up with wholesome video games in the shorty zone, while Daddeeee nabs a black T-shirted store employee to complain yet again about something not quite right with his iPhone.




Someone's precious terrier in a red sweater is barking on a recent Sunday afternoon in the Clarendon Apple Store in Arlington, Va., while eight different kinds of music blare from all those iPod stereo docks, which are being monopolized by the very same touch-don't-look customers who were once fond of cranking up the volume knobs in a Circuit City car audio department. The stores have upped the frenetic pace, skipping the cash registers altogether, zapping your purchases with handheld remotes, offering to print out a receipt if you're hopelessly wedded to something so paper, so tactile.




The Apple Store is of California and exactly like California: the sunshine is still plentiful and free, the guys are glinty and nerdy (and the cute chicks dig them), but forget about parking in California, and the beach is totally mobbed, and the minute you get there you say to yourself Why am I here again? Oh, right, because it's all so cool. You stagger away from the Apple Store the same way you leave California, a little too buzzed.




Time does funny things to trends, and to iconic mall stores. Once upon a time, people loved hanging out in the Sharper Image, which is now part of mall blight like the SpencerGifts and the GNC.




Not 18 months ago, cultural essayists and architecture critics would wander into flagship Apple Stores around the world (SoHo! Fifth Avenue! Regent Street!) and go long and poetic about Apple's revolution in hipster elegance, the clean lines, the retail frontier. And indeed, these are beautiful places, pluralistic to the point that you can use their bathroom, and check your e-mail on their display Macs, and be among friends you always dreamed of having, somewhere. It was a glimpse at a world where everyone is smart, and agreeably diverse, and able to spend lots of money. Now you have to brace yourself to walk into the Apple Store. The question so recently was: What is the Apple Store doing to us, as a people?




Now the question is: What are we doing to it?




Can you smother a store to death?




Smothering, yes. "It's sweaty now," a friend says, thinking about the Clarendon store.




There are 204 Apple Stores in five countries, the majority of them in the United States. Over the summer, 330,000 Mac computers were sold at Apple stores &

and Apple says more than half of them were sold to new converts, who'd owned PCs. Around 270,000 people paid for "one-to-one" privileges, which allows them to come in for some special, personal love from an Apple Store genius.




These are not, in the grand consumer electronics scheme, huge numbers. It only feels like everyone is at the Apple Store. That is the glorious idea behind it, to be essential but still rare, to be ubiquitous but unique.




The specialists and geniuses are in their black Apple T-shirts, wearing name tags (Adam, Matt, Luis and the endless supply of Ryans, and an occasional Jen).




And talkingrillyfast. Rillyrlyfst. Allfthem. Glare-eyed, too happy with themselves, like Jesus people holding up one finger on 1970s street corners. They know you aren't One of Them, but they forgive you. Nothing expresses both virtue and contempt like forgiveness. That's life in church. They know what Steve Jobs wants of them, and they live to serve.




Alex Frankel, a 37-year-old writer from San Francisco, spent the last few years applying for and working at a variety of retail jobs to report what it's really like on that side of the register, and writing a just-released book, "Punching In: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee."




What separates an Apple Store dude (Frankel observes that the employees are still mostly male) from other stores' employees is the degree to which he believes fully in the product and the mission. "Here, unlike Gap, CEO Steve Jobs could not slip in unannounced &

he was revered as godlike," Frankel writes. He learned to fine-tune the store's casual, companionable sales techniques, the three P's, as laid out in the training video: "Position, permission, probe." (Position: Let the customer know that you're asking questions to get a feel for what they want to use the computer for, and they give permission and then you really probe find out if they do graphics, if they want to make movies, if they're going to go way, way into the iLife.)




"If Gap was hot in the 1980s and Urban Outfitters in the 1990s, this was the time for the Apple Store chain," he writes. In his epilogue, Frankel returns to the Apple Store with a problem concerning a gift certificate. A store employee "adamantly declared that I could purchase something only online and absolutely not in the store." And Frankel recognized him. He'd folded shirts with him at the Gap.




"I think people are still not exactly sure what the Apple Store is all about," says Gary Allen, a former police dispatcher in Berkeley, Calif., who in his spare time runs a Web site called ifoAppleStore, which obsessively chronicles and documents any and all news about store locations, since Apple officially declines to discuss or reveal its plans. (Allen has become adroit at sniffing out new Apple Stores by checking building permits. Also you can sense its arrival by habitat: upscale stores, hip streets and, weirdly, the J. Jill clothing chain. Apple likes to be on the Nordstrom end of malls. These are some good indicators.)




"People are used to a big box store, where you go and you pull things off the shelf and you take them to a cash register. The first time you go into an Apple Store is a little like going into a restaurant where you don't know if you order at the front or at your table, and where you pick up your food," Allen says. "Up until a year or so ago, (the store) had a policy where people would come in and you don't bother them. Now you walk in and they immediately say, 'Hi, can I help you with a computer today?' "




More strangers kept coming in, and Apple had to retrain the church ushers. Then more people kept coming. Soon enough, the activity level in your average Apple Store began to feel like a Saturday afternoon at Best Buy.




Epilogue: Clarendon again. Apple Store madness on a Tuesday afternoon.




The titanium Powerbook G4 has died. It was purchased in the Santa Monica Apple Store on a lavender August evening of breezes and palm trees, way back in 2003, just as people were wandering in and wanting to know more about the ancient click-wheel version of the iPod. There was wheezing from its fan, and horrid, osteoporotic clicking from the hard drive.




"It's time," nods a Mac Specialist.




Don't even bother with an exam at the Genius Bar. Your ProCare agreement expired many moons ago. Here is the new MacBook. The Apple Store is always willing to help you cope with a death, and $2,000 later, it didn't feel like death at all.




One leaves the store feeling both shamed and thrilled.