Huge Store Swallows Up Small NYC Crowd

November 15, 2009

Whatever it takes to excite New Yorkers, it’s not a $40 million Apple store, with a 35-foot tall glass façade and 45-foot stone walls and a spiral glass staircase and set on a conspicuous Broadway street corner in Manhattan. Fewer than 20 people weathered an irritating all-night drizzle in front of the new Upper West Side retail store Friday night to be the first-in-line, and an hour before the 10 a.m. opening fewer than 400 were waiting to get inside. By any other account, the grand opening was a huge success, with a friendly staff, a landmark building and—ultimately—one more place to buy Apple products, take training classes and receive technical support. View a gallery of photos of the waiting line and grand opening.

Enthusiasm from the true Apple devotees in the waiting line was strong, despite their fatigue. But the New Yorkers’ were lackluster, afflicted with equal parts of “Whatever!” and the motivation that came from the question, “What do I get for free?” Regardless, the grand opening was grand, with a bright staff of 220 who had enough enthusiasm for themselves and the waiting line.

Other New York City grand openings have experienced similar attitudes from local residents. At the West 14th Street opening, many in line became angry after a local FM radio disc jockey erroneously reported that the first 10 in line would receive a free laptop.

First In Line

The first person in line was a 15 year-old who began the line about 3:30 p.m. wearing three layers of athletic-branded sweatshirts, but no rain protection. He had slept little the night before and was up early on Friday to make his way to New York City. He proudly declined to sleep during the night and was beyond fatigue when line took its final place in front of the store.

While in line during the day, #1 joked to passersby that Apple was going to sell the iPod touch “50 percent off” or that the “new iPhone” was going to be revealed. Later, he grabbed a nearby stack of flattened cardboard boxes from the gutter so he could sit on the sidewalk and be insulated—somewhat—from the 50-degree temperatures.

At about 9 a.m. while standing next to the front glass, he borrowed a pen and paper and wrote out a request that he held against the window—I want a laptop. He later raised that question with several red-shirted Apple employees who came outside to mingle with the waiting line. They were very polite in explaining—no free laptops.

Several others near the front of the line had a less demanding attitude about free products, but were obviously not in the mainstream of Apple’s followers. Still others were well-dressed Apple enthusiasts who just don’t include screaming, clapping and high-fives in their repertoire of expression.

The waiting line started out to the right of the front door, but later at night was moved by Apple security beyond the right edge of the store. In the early morning the line was moved back to the right of the store, confined with stanchions. Finally, at about 9 a.m. the line was moved over to the left side of the store, with a press area on the right side.

Bicycle fencing led north on Broadway and west on 68th Street. However, the line probably never reached the end of 68th, which is a short block to Amsterdam Avenue. The line was always loosely-packed, and an 8:45 a.m. hand count found 180 in line, to a point about half-way down 68th.


The overnight group was a solid 18 people who were a mix of Apple enthusiasts and those who were interested in the event. As usual, the time passed moderately fast from 3 p.m. to midnight as passersby kept the crowd energized with questions and conversation. From midnight to 5 a.m. the pedestrian traffic dried up, but the on-going rain kept the waiting line wet. The heavy drizzle stopped two or three times during the night, creating some hope that it would end for the day. But then…the drizzle would begin again.

Fortunately, Apple was very pro-active in loaning the crowd large, golf-sized black umbrellas with an Apple logo. Early winds destroyed one umbrella, but eventually the wind dropped off during the night, making it easier to stay dry.

About 8 a.m. the Starbucks employees arrived, and made at least three passes along the line with croissants, hot chocolate and coffee, all thanks to Apple. People in line began to stow their other gear, including chairs, to be ready to move.

The Entry

With the waiting line in its final location, the staffers in red shirts came to the front window, yelled and clapped…but with little or no reaction from the New York crowd outside. About 9:30 a.m. about 40 staffers came outside to do “the run” and pump up the crowd. There was then a period of quiet waiting until—finally—the 10 a.m opening time arrived.

What was conspicuous for the first time at a grand opening was a placard displayed in the window, stating that filming and videotaping was taking place inside the store. By entering the store, attendees consented to having their image used by Apple for internal promotional materials. Apple’s usual filming crew from Washington Square Arts & Films was using a Aaton 16mm camera and Panasonic Lumix still camera to take film and video respectively. The crew was also taking time-lapse video from various points in the store.

The press assembled opposite those first-in-line, but it seemed to be a light turn-out, especially from the local TV stations.

At 10 a.m. there was a countdown from somewhere within the crowd, the doors came open, and then the security team metered the first 10 persons into the store, one-by-one, apparently for filming reasons. The line walked through a double line of yelling and clapping employees after receiving their commemorative T-shirt in a standard rectangular box. Apple gave out 2,500 T-shirts, and by 11:30 a.m. were giving some people more than one shirt, or to those who just came into the store an then immediately left.

Sr. V-P Ron Johnson was at the grand opening, naturally all smiles over the store, but no doubt also over the Retail segment’s performance. Principle architect Peter Bohlin from Bohlin Cywinski Jackson was in the store, also smiling, along with project manager Karl Backus. Venerable financial analyst Charles Wolf (Needham & Co.) was at the store, giving his thoughts about the store to reporters. Wolf is generally bullish on Apple’s financial performance and stock price.

As is common at New York openings, several celebrities visited the store, including Judah Friedlander (30 Rock), Fred Armisen (SNL) with his just-married actress-wife Elisabeth Moss, Jack McBrayer (30 Rock), William Defoe, Billy Crudup, Jane Krakowski (30 Rock), actor Jeffrey Wright,  actress Blake Lively and actor-comedian Richard Belzer (Law & Order).

By 11:30 a.m. there was no line and the security team began stowing all the stanchions. Some leaving the store were given a T-shirt box, even though they had already received one on the way in. There still were people on the sidewalk in front of the store, gawking at what was occurring.

The Store

Finally, after watching the store from the outside for 24 hours, the line could now go inside for even more spectacular views of the architecture, and to examine the lower level. Others have likened it to a “cathedral to Apple,” although from the most angles it’s pretty obvious the design takes a bow to a performance theater, complete with curtain (glass) and proscenium (the stone and roof).

Essentially, the store is a U-shaped shell of stone set back from Broadway. In front of that shell, the architect attached a three-sided glass enclosure, and capped it with an arched glass ceiling. A key element of the entire design in the angle of the glass enclosure—I haven’t been able to measure that yet.

The roof structure, ceiling lights and Apple logo are eye-catching, even from 50 feet overhead. In one sweep you have a view of the much taller surrounding buildings, the regularity and symmetry of the roof trusses and spotlights, and the random reflections of the Apple logo and display tables down below.

Amazingly, the acoustics within the store are good. Echo-creating stainless steel is limited to short sections below the sidewall display counters. So it’s the stone walls that control the acoustics, and those stones actually dampen down noises in the store, not amplify them. On the busy Sunday after the opening, the store was packed and it was definitely noisy, but with minimal echos.

Once at the back of the store, you turn around and marvel that you’ve walked so far, and are yet still inside the store. And you also notice that despite being almost 100 feet away from the front window, it’s still huge and panoramic. An elevator is available behind the right door on the back wall, but you need a staffer’s help, since the door leads into the back-of-house area.

Overhead, the ceiling is all glass, and the support structure is very thin and light. The truss structure is supported by the stone walls and a steel rod tensioning system, all apparently intended to reduce the mass and visual mass of the structure so visitors can focus on the view beyond.

The aisles between the four rows of display tables are truly wide, intended to accommodate the child strollers that are a hallmark of Upper West Side residents. The sidewall display counters seem to go on and on, and if you look up while standing at a counter, you see nothing but stone: up, left and right.

To the casual eye, each of the three walls is simply that—a stone wall. But looking closer, you can see there is a pattern to the placement and orientation of the stones, especially for the wall on the left.

So how much stone do you actually see? Lots. There are 14 rows of stones on the sidewalls, and a 15th row on the back wall to accommodate the arched ceiling. Each row is set is what’s know as a “runner bond” pattern, with 14 stones set in each row for the two side walls, and 12 stones across the back. Because of the pattern, there are sometimes half-width stones on each row.

[I should note that the above numbers for stones-across are “equivalent stone segments.” That is, for half the rows, there are 14 stones, and for half the stones there are 10 full-length stones, and two half-length stones, both located at the ends of the row. The half-length stones are necessary to allow the runner bond pattern. I didn’t count each individual stone, but it’s about 572 for those visible on the inside. There are probably another 168 forming the outside (left) wall.]

The two sides walls are visually thicker, two stones thick, in fact. However, in this case, one stone is turned to show its end, the other stone shows its length.

Lastly, it’s impossible to tell if the rear of right-side wall is thicker than a single stone.

The store has one amenity not intended for humans—on Sunday there were two water bowls set out on either side of the front doors. There were also small barricades across the glass panels adjacent to the doors, apparently to help prevent visitors from walking into the glass.


The classic, free-standing spiral glass staircase has a right descent into the lower level, where the 45-foot Genius Bar and training area is located. The store is as wide as the upper level, but is not quite as deep, probably to accomodate back-of-house space for the Genius Bar.

The stairs are set in the very sharp corner of the store closest to the Broadway and 67th Street corner. The walls adjacent to the stairs are stainless steel, which along with the Genius Bar are the only use of the metal downstairs. Instead, the walls here are the same stone as used upstairs.

Coming down the stairs, you first notice the 108-inch Panasonic video display set in one corner. You also see the Genius Bar at the very back of the space, and then the training tables in between—four long tables, four shorter, and then a row that includes two smaller tables and two ‘kids’ tables.

Despite having no windows, the lower space isn’t claustrophobic. There is bright light from the back-lit wall graphics and overhead ceiling lights. But during the day, at least, there is light coming through the circular stairway opening. A 20-foot long check-out (cashwrap) counter is also downstairs. Employees were using the new iPod touch device to handle sales transactions throughout the store.


The next day’s coverage of the Apple store opening was almost non-existant. A Web searched didn’t locate any stories about the opening from the nation’s newspaper of record, The New York Times.

But the real draw for any Apple devotee was the same as it always is: to meet old waiting line friends, make new friends, and to be part of the experience, however it plays out.

In this case, it was a great experience, made possible by hundreds of Apple employees who worked to make it perfect.

And now, I look forward to Chicago, London and Paris.

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