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A 400-strong queue at a little local store, for a book?

Nipping Out At Midnight to Buy My Copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

"I'll just nip out at midnight to the local bookstore," I thought. I might be an ex-Australian on my passport, but culturally, when it comes to queueing I just don't do it – so no trekking down to some central London witches and warlocks circus for me.

The local Waterstone's was open ("from midnight until 1") they told me this afternoon, so I'd just jump on the bicycle, tootle up there, and be home for some hot chocolate in no time.

Who was I kidding? This was, as someone in the queue told me, "a once in a lifetime experience". And lots of people, hundreds of people, many of whom like me had thought to avoid the central London queues, had come to experience it.

Camden High Street is one of the "alternative" social centres of London, lined with late-night pubs, nightclubs, and drug-dealers. If you know who to ask you can get any drug you could name, and some you couldn't, on this street. Goths rub shoulders with dolly girls, hoodie gangs skip around football fans on the razz.

But a queue for a BOOK? A 400-strong queue — longer by far than that permanent fixture outside Koko, the nightclub that has clung to fervent popularity longer than usually seems possible — for a book?

This was beyond the comprehension of the denizens of Camden High Street. A Goth with a mohican, 20 lip piercings and a dress of full leather and studs won't raise an eyebrow here, but at this they stared open-mouthed.

It had obviously been beyond the comprehension too of Waterstone's, whose staff numbers, and "special Halloween sweets" supplies were meant for a far smaller turnout.

Past McDonald's, past the post office, past the bookie's, the queue snaked on and on. At its head the report was that the keenest had been here at 10pm, which turned out to be wise really, since it took nearly two hours for my end, which I joined at midnight, to reach the welcome warmth of the doors.

The young medical student to whom I'd been talking was chilled nearly blue in her summer party frock, the well-travelled 20-year-old American to whom I'd been chatting about Spanish cultural mores looked almost as frozen in his light T-shirt. Only the Brownie leader — 28 she said, so she'd got into Harry Potter at university "I haven't got an excuse" — was sensibly wrapped up.

The police came — in the huddles of four as they usually travel in Camden after dark — and were probably needed when the 12-year-old near the head of the queue, emboldened perhaps by his large and largely adult gang, yelled "Muggles" at a passing group of hooded youths. I'm sure they understood – a measure of how the cultural phenomenon has penetrated far and wide.

There were several notable factors about the queue – the gender balance, 50-50 near enough. Who says boys won't read? And their age — odd examples at the extremes, but mostly 20, plus or minus a few years — these are the Harry Potter generation.

But there was diversity — a complete Muslim family, surely, you'd think, buying books for the children — the woman in black head scarf, the man in a religious skull cap, jumped into a car to leave as I reached the head of the queue; in front of me the huge hoop earrings that scream "council estate" dangled in the light. A serious-looking middle-aged woman in shiny heeled pumps — surely a librarian, I thought — waited just ahead.

All over London, all over Europe, all over the world, there have been queues like this, for a book. Isn't it a wonderful thing?

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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