Readers waited in sheets of rain and blazing sun Friday, from Sydney to Seattle, to get their hands on "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," the seventh and final volume in the schoolboy wizard's saga.
In a now-familiar ritual that is part sales frenzy and part Halloween party, bookstores in Britain were flinging open their doors at a minute past midnight to hordes of would-be warlocks, sorcerers and ordinary, non-magical Muggles. Shops throughout the world were putting the book on sale at the same time, and the United States will follow as midnight strikes Saturday in each time zone, from 12:01 a.m. EDT.
J.K. Rowling, who created the magical lad in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" a decade ago, was giving a midnight reading to 500 competition-winning children in the grand Victorian surroundings of London's Natural History Museum.
For many of the keenest fans, the place to be was Waterstone's bookstore on Piccadilly in central London. Dozens of die-hard fans sheltered under umbrellas and plastic ponchos, undeterred by torrential rain. Some passed the time by jotting predictions for the final novel in notebooks, while others encouraged passing drivers to "Honk for Harry."
"This is the biggest Harry Potter party in Europe, so it's worth the wait," said Laura Halinen, 23, from Kuusankoski, Finland.
Rowling's books about the bespectacled orphan with the lightning-bolt scar have sold 325 million copies in 64 languages, and the launch of each new volume has become a Hollywood-scale extravaganza.
Chellie Carr, 17, a fan since the age of 9, said she had pestered her mother to bring her to London from her hometown of Okemos, Mich.
"For all the other books she said, 'No. It's just a book.' But for this one, she said yes," said Carr, who wore a homemade black cloak lined in green for Slytherin, one of four houses at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
"Deathly Hallows" has a print run of 12 million in the United States alone, and Internet retailer Amazon says it has taken 2.2 million orders for the book - 47 percent higher than the pre-order for the sixth volume, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." Britain's Royal Mail says it will deliver 600,000 copies on Saturday - one for every 43 households in the country; the U.S. Postal Service said it would deliver 1.8 million copies.
"It is completely crazy," said Deborah Tilley, a spokeswoman for Britain's Waterstone's bookstore chain. "It has never been quite this busy."
From London to Los Angeles, Potter-mania spans the globe. Tel Aviv's Steimatzky bookstore was due to open at 2:01 a.m. local time Saturday (a minute after midnight London time), defying criticism from Orthodox Jewish lawmakers for opening on the Sabbath, when the law requires most businesses in Israel to close.
In India, stores were opening at dawn for special Harry Potter parties. In Bangkok, British ambassador David Fall was to hand over Thailand's first official copy of "Deathly Hallows" to the first customer in line at the Emporium Shopping Complex. The mall was decked out with a re-creation of King's Cross Station's platform 9¾, where Harry and friends catch the Hogwarts Express to school.
Phnom Penh's Monument Books - Cambodia's only outlet for the book - expected its allotment of 224 copies to sell out within hours.
Excitement was building in the United States, which gets the book a few hours later than most of the rest of the world. Enthusiasts, some rereading previous Potter volumes, lined up in sunshine outside book stores in Los Angeles and New York.
Portland, Maine, was going all-out with a 12-hour Mugglefest to celebrate the book's launch. Fans wearing robes and carrying wands
were riding the Hogwarts Express into a re-creation of Kings Cross station, and an old red-brick warehouse foundry along the city's waterfront was converted into the magical shopping street Diagon Alley, where Hogwarts students buy wands and other magical paraphernalia in Rowling's books.
Security for the launch is tight, with books shipped in sealed pallets and legal contracts binding stores not to sell the book before the midnight release time.
In Ireland, 2,500 people who bought tickets for a launch party at Eason's bookshop on Dublin's O'Connell Street had to sign contracts to be admitted into the store at 11 p.m.
"It's been hard work," said children's book buyer David O'Callaghan, who is dressing up as a werewolf for the occasion. "We've had to sign an embargo, and every customer has signed an embargo, and we send all the signed forms off to an auditor - he's the equivalent of Voldemort - who says things like, 'The signature on account number X214 does not match.' But it's all worth it when you see 2,500 people in O'Connell Street, dressed up and waiting for their book."
Despite the security, spoilers have sprouted on the Internet, including photographed images of what appeared to be all 700-plus pages of the book's U.S. edition. Publishers would not say whether the leaked pages were genuine.
In France, the daily Le Parisien played spoiler, telling readers how the final installment ends, in a small article which it printed upside down. The book's French publishing house, Gallimard Jeunesse, condemned the newspaper's revelation, saying it showed "a total lack of respect for J.K. Rowling" and "disdain for readers."
As many as 1,200 copies were shipped early in the United States by an online retailer, and The New York Times and The (Baltimore) Sun published reviews of the book ahead of the release.
Rowling said she was "staggered" by the embargo-busting reviews and called on fans to preserve the secrecy of the plot.
"In a very short time you will know EVERYTHING," she wrote on her Web site.
The six books have been building to a final confrontation between Harry and his evil nemesis, Lord Voldemort, scourge of the wizarding world. Fans are on tenterhooks because of the prophecy, revealed in Book 5, that one must inevitably kill the other.
Amber de Jager, 19, from Rijswijk in the Netherlands, said she expected "relief, but a lot of tears as well" when she finished reading.
"I think it will have a bittersweet ending," she said.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)