NEW YORK – At last! Faster than a turbo-powered broomstick, Harry Potter is flying off the shelves.

Bookstores flung open their doors at midnight today, to admit hordes of would-be witches, warlocks and ordinary muggles – Potter-speak for non-magical humans.

All were eager to get their hands on “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” the latest volume of the boy wizard’s adventures. Shops as far afield as Singapore and Australia put the 600-plus page book on sale at the same time.

“I’m going to read it all at once. I don’t think I could stop once I got started,” said Katrine Skovgaard, 18, who traveled from Denmark and waited in line for six hours before collecting her copy at a central London bookstore.

In Edinburgh, Scotland, author J.K. Rowling emerged from behind a secret panel inside the city’s medieval castle to read an excerpt from the sixth chapter to a super-select group of 70 children from around the world.

Millions of Harry’s fans can now solve the mysteries that have been teasingly hinted at by Rowling for months: Will Harry’s teenage friends Ron and Hermione find romance? Which major character will die? Who is the half-blood prince?

“You get a lot of answers in this book,” Rowling, a resident of Edinburgh, said as she arrived at the castle. “I can’t wait for everyone to read it.”

It has become publishing’s most lucrative, frantic and joyous ritual: From suburban shopping malls to rural summer camps, fans dressed up, lined up and prepared to stay up late with their copy of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.”

Thousands of people in London were expected amid heightened security in the wake of last week’s terrorists bombings.

“We’re very much of the message that it’s business as usual – London’s open for business and we want to celebrate this book,” said John Webb, children’s buyer at bookseller Waterstone’s, which expects 300,000 people to attend midnight openings at more than 100 stores across Britain.

Elsewhere, summer camps were planning midnight wake-up calls and waiving package restrictions in anticipation of “Half-Blood Prince,” the penultimate of Rowling’s planned seven-book series. One camp in New Hampshire even planned to forklift books to kids.

In London, events were muted by the July 7 subway and bus bombings, which killed some 50 people. Book and magazine chain WH Smith announced it was scrapping a planned midnight launch at King’s Cross Station, from whose fictional Platform 9 ¾ Harry catches the train to Hogwarts at the start of each term. At least 26 people died in a bomb blast on a subway near King’s Cross, the deadliest of the day’s four attacks.

Smith spokeswoman Sarah Hodson said it would be “insensitive and inappropriate” to hold the event at the station, but the store would remain open into Saturday morning so fans could purchase the book.

Since Rowling first introduced Harry and his fellow students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to the world in 1997, the books have become a global phenomenon, selling 270 million copies in 62 languages and inspiring a series of movies. Rowling is now the richest woman in Britain, with a fortune estimated by Forbes magazine at $1 billion.

With only brief interruptions, “Half-Blood Prince” has topped the charts of Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com since last December, when Rowling announced that she had completed it. Pre-orders worldwide already are in the millions and other Potter products are selling strongly, including the audio book narrated by Jim Dale, a “deluxe” edition of “Half-Blood Prince” and a box set of the previous five books.

Events were planned from New York City – where Dale was to read at a Barnes & Noble in Union Square – to Mexico City, where the Libreria Gandhi book store scheduled a midnight sale and a daylong Potter festival on Saturday, even though the book will be available only in English.

Publication has sparked a price war in England, with many chains selling the book for about half the $29.95 cover price. In the United States, the online retailer Alibris.com is offering $5, plus postage, for used copies. Scholastic Inc., Rowling’s U.S. publisher, has also joined the competition, offering a 20 percent discount on its Web site.

“I am always disappointed when publishers sell books directly to the consumer, bypassing their retail partners,” said Mitchell Kaplan, president of the American Booksellers Association. “Selling it at a discount makes it more frustrating.”

Scholastic is releasing more than 10 million copies. Waterstone’s predicts 2 million copies will be sold in Britain, where Bloomsbury publishes the book, and 10 million worldwide in the first 24 hours.

Amazon reported that advance orders of the “adult” edition, which bears a more muted cover than the children’s version, were up 17 percent from the last book.

The new work has been preceded by months of carefully orchestrated publicity, hype and plot leaks, and surrounded by intense security. Amazon.co.uk has a secure 200,000-square-foot warehouse to pack the books. Canadian publisher Raincoast sought a court injunction after a Vancouver store accidentally sold 14 copies last week. A judge ordered customers not to discuss the book, copy it, sell it or read it before its release.

Even the pope is part of Pottermania. Writer Gabriele Kuby (author of “Harry Potter – Good or Evil?”) said that Pope Benedict XVI told her in letters written in 2003, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, that the books “deeply distort Christianity in the soul.”

The Vatican had no comment.


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