Lately, this has been a city of long, expectant lines. First came the throngs of same-sex couples outside City Hall, waiting to be married and to make history in the process. Then, last Saturday morning, came the Apple Computer faithful, waiting ... well, waiting to see a store that is practically identical, in its sleek interior design, to the company's 75 other retail outlets around the country.
For some Apple fanatics, apparently, the queue's the thing.
This particular one seemed endless. It began just outside the front door of the store, a brand-new two-story building whose upper level, featuring two glowing Apple logos set against stainless steel panels, gives it the look of a silvery PowerBook flipped open for use. It then ran along four full blocks before hanging a sharp right onto Market Street. Apple officials estimated that about 1,200 people were in the line at the 10am opening, and that nearly 6,000 more passed through the store on Saturday.
"The appeal is you get to hang out all night long and just talk to people," said Ulan McKnight, a bleary-eyed Web developer from Berkeley who arrived at 9pm on Thursday, 37 hours before opening time, to secure a place at the very front. Saturday was McKnight's 40th birthday. But camping out on the sidewalk isn't something he does only to mark personal milestones -- he was also first in line for the opening of the Apple store in SoHo in New York, in July 2002.
Still, this event had a special buzz, McKnight and others said. After all, the San Francisco Bay Area is the absolute center of Apple mania, and the company's headquarters are just south of here, in Cupertino. That proximity was enough to ensure the attendance of company officials including Steve Jobs, the chief executive, on Saturday.
Along with the other 199 people who were the first to enter on Saturday, McKnight was given the chance to buy a gift bag of Apple merchandise, valued at US$600 to US$1,000, for $249. By Tuesday, at least three were available on eBay, with bids of $415 to $445.
About two and a half blocks behind McKnight, well out of the gift-bag running, Nick Young and James Losey, students from the University of California, Berkeley, sat on folding chairs. They had arrived at 6am Saturday and were watching the film "Desperado" on a PowerBook.
"It's the downloaded version," Young, 19, said with a laugh.
The store here, which has 10,800 square feet of selling space, is the fifth of the company's so-called flagship retail outlets, along with others in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Tokyo.
The opening of each of the flagships -- which feature all-glass staircases floating beneath generous skylights and small theaters for classes and other public events -- has prompted a frenzy among the company's fans.
When Mayor Gavin Newsom, wearing a dark suit and a striped tie, arrived at the San Francisco store a little before 10 to cut the ribbon with his predecessor, the famously well-tailored Willie Brown Jr., he found a scene as crowded -- and nearly as celebratory -- as the one at City Hall for the stream of same-sex weddings he has been watching over, and occasionally conducting.
The size of the crowd may have seemed puzzling, especially for non-Apple users, for whom a trip to the computer store is more a chore than a pilgrimage. And while some gay couples have been waiting their whole adult lives for a chance to marry, no Apple customer can claim to have been deprived of opportunities to buy its merchandise.
"We just love Apple -- the art of its machines," said Steve Cocks, 42, who had traveled north from his home in Orange County.
McKnight, at the head of the line, added, "This is going to sound like a commercial, but the reality is that Apple makes products that change our lives, and this is a small way for us to say thank you."
In a way, of course, it was a commercial: the flagship openings are carefully orchestrated as media events by Apple, and the passionate fans who arrive earliest, clutching sleeping bags and iPods, usually provide the most reliable film clips of all.
The stores, which started appearing in 2001, are ruled by the same aesthetic discipline that appears in the products and feature clean lines and a silver-and-white palette to match. They are overseen by Apple's senior vice president for retail, Ron Johnson, whom Apple hired in 2000 from Target, another company known for using hip design to boost its bottom line and its public profile. Apple's retail locations now account for about a seventh of its annual sales, Rauckhorst said.
The stores' design is credited, officially, to Jobs rather than to an architecture firm. That suggests not his level of architectural training (he has none) but the degree to which the company considers design a priority. When pressed, Apple officials will admit that the firm of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, which worked on the store in New York, had a hand in this one as well.
"We didn't want anything fussy here," Jobs said, standing just inside the front door on Saturday as fans poured in and swarmed the displays. "Look at this staircase. It's design fused with engineering -- glass holding up glass."
Asked if he had been inspired by designers from the Bauhaus, or any other modernist architects whose spare aesthetic seemed to resonate through the store, Jobs laughed.
"No, no, no," he said, adding three or four more "nos" for good measure. "We're doing our own thing."
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