Chaos & Prizes at West 14th Street

December 7, 2007

I received an e-mail from Apple announcing the grand opening of the largest Apple Store in the city. Since I recently became a first-time Apple computer owner, I thought the event would give me a great opportunity to meet lots of people who could provide tricks, tips and advice. The notice also mentioned that those attending would have a chance to win an iPod or laptop. Why not go?

The opening of the place officially known as Apple Store West 14th Street was scheduled for 6:00 pm. I arrived around 3:30 and found a couple hundred people were already waiting. Talking to the people closest to me, I realized that most of them had never used — or even seen — an Apple computer and didn’t really understand what would happen when the doors opened.

The high school girls who linked arms and cheerfully elbowed their way in front of me explained that a DJ on their favorite radio station (WQHT Hot 97 “Where Hip Hop Lives”) had announced the grand opening and promised that the first people through the doors would all receive free iPods. The kids didn’t agree on the number of free iPods the DJ had mentioned (200? 400? 600?) but they had all, they swore, heard him say that the first people on line would definitely be receiving them. Of course, Apple had never promised any such thing.

Soon, the sky got dark, snow began to fall and the mood changed. As the crowd grew, more rumors started to circulate. Apparently, another popular DJ (WWPR Power 105.1 “Hip Hop and back in the Day Joints”) had spread a rumor that the store was giving out free laptops to the first 10 people who entered. Eager to get their hands on the costly electronics, many people showed up with groups of friends and relatives; scores of shivering children wailed in the cold.

The hours passed, the store brought out some portable heaters, a guy in the crowd had a pizza delivered, and the snow stopped. Since most of those outside the store were determined to be among the first to enter, it was inevitable that pushing and shoving would ensue. What was surprising, though, was the tiny group of security guards who seemed reluctant to approach the crowd, and the complete lack of Apple Store employees out on the street with us (if they’d been there, they surely would have heard — and been able to quell — the rumors that were flying).

And then, pandemonium. A couple clad in puffy jackets squeezed through the metal police barriers within view of the kids who had cut in front of me. Screaming, pushing and hitting, the frantic girls attacked the line jumpers until police arrived and dragged the couple away for their own safety. With no security staff in sight, the crowd surged forward, then surged again. People were knocked to the ground, shoved up against the pane glass windows (thankfully, they held), and a wheelchair nearly overturned. At last, police reinforcements arrived and succeeded in controlling the tense, angry crowd.

The doors opened promptly at 6:00 and the staff allowed the linewaiters to enter in small groups. When we finally made it through the door, we were greeted by applauding staffers, handed white boxes containing t-shirts and black tubes holding posters. The tubes had black plastic caps, and hidden under each cap was a sticker revealing a prize (if any). The rumors about prizes going to the first few hundred were, of course, false; the store had less than 4,000 posters and t-shirts to distribute.

I, like most of those who’d entered, won a $10 iTunes card. The girl next to me received the same thing. Scowling at the card, she asked, “What am I gonna do with this?” She didn’t own an iPod or a computer, or even know anyone who did. I offered her $5 for the card and she happily accepted.

I heard that Whoopie Goldberg and Mary J. Blige had been in the store when the doors opened (they used a different, secure entrance), but they’d departed before I arrived. I did, however, see a movie star in the crowd and snap a picture. I was surprised to see how many stomped out (or stayed to argue with staff) as soon as they learned they weren’t getting a free iPod or laptop. And I was shocked to learn that the store does not contain a public rest room. None, not one, not even a handicapped stall.

When I left the store, I walked around the block to see how many people were still waiting to enter. Thousands, stretching around the block, stood in the Manhattan night. By that time, dozens of police officers were on the scene, keeping order and scratching their heads. They knew that most of those waiting would go home cold, tired and empty-handed.

Early arrivals — a typical happy Apple crowd

Later arrivals were lacking in merriment

A portable heater in action

Inside the store, Brooke Shields surveyed the crowd

First glimpse of the Genius Bar

The store crowded to capacity inside & out

Around the block, thousands still hoped to enter

Apple Store: W. 14th Street
O’Grady’s PowerPage: Apple Store Riots
Info Apple Store: W. 14th St. Opening (scroll down to read comments)
Info Apple Store: W. 14th Friday Evening
MacRumors: West 14th Street Store Opening

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