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Apple Comes to Columbia

© 2006 Lawrence I. Charters and Lykara I. Charters

See accompanying photo gallery

After several months of mysterious construction, and even a rumor it had been canceled, the Apple Store in Columbia, Maryland opened at the Columbia Mall on September 23, 2006. This store is the fifth in Maryland, and the tenth in the Maryland-DC-Virginia region, which also hosts the very first Apple retail store at Tysons Corner, Virginia.

Aside from being the most recent Apple Store, the Columbia store is also the first (as far as we know) of a new design. It is physically smaller than the Tysons Corner store, the largest in the region, but still generously proportioned. There is no theater in the back; instead, in addition to the usual Genius Bar, there are now two other special customer service areas, the iPod Bar and The Studio. Given the usual jubilant chaos that accompanies an Apple Store opening, it was impossible to ask the purpose of these two new areas, but presumably they assist with iPod questions and iApplications (iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, iWeb, iEtc.). The store Web site, http://www.apple.com/retail/columbia/, suggests that The Studio is “the creative hub” of the store where “your ideas and our help come together to enhance your Mac projects.”

Early morning visitors to Columbia Mall were somewhat taken aback by the long line that formed prior to the opening. Extending from the front of the store, down a hall to exit the building, then across a skybridge to a parking garage, then down the ramp of the garage, the long queue drew an entertaining assortment of suspicious, puzzled, and curious looks. Mall security personnel, plus extra people wearing “Security” shirts, were on hand to keep the very orderly crowd in order.

First in line was Michael Galletti, 10, a student at Ilchester Elementary School in Ellicott City, Maryland. Michael had set his alarm clock for 4:30 a.m. and had persuaded his parents to get him to the mall by 5:45 a.m. so he could be first in line. He expressed overflowing enthusiasm for the new MacBooks and the new, colorful aluminum iPod nanos. “I love Apple!”

The first thousand people through the store received a black Apple T-shirt with Columbia printed on them, plus a chance to enter a Grand Opening Sweepstakes for, among other things, a black 13-inch MacBook and a silver iPod nano. The store was out of T-shirts well before noon.

Seeing the line and the security, some passersby asked if there was a book signing, a political speech, or a rock concert scheduled. Those in line offered some creative answers (“Free puppies!” “A lecture on accounting!” “Telemarketers!”) which often seemed more believable than “Apple Store opening.” One woman, driving an improbably enormous SUV, couldn’t believe people would line up for “just Macs,” and suggested everyone “get a life.” She was met with a chorus of shouts to “get a Prius.”

In addition to the usual PowerBook, iBook and MacBook owners in line, using the store’s open Wi-Fi connection to do various tasks, an even larger number were biding their time listening to iPods, or using digital cameras to take photos of one another. A few people were carrying Macs, obviously intent on visiting the Genius Bar. One woman, roughly a thousand feet from the front, anxiously wondered if she would get priority service because she was an AppleCare Pro customer. We wished her luck.

Given that it is an election year, it was no great surprise to find people in line with not only Apple apparel but also political shirts of all sorts. Quite a few expressed shock to discover that “those people” (whomever “those people” might have been) used Macs; more than one observed, “I didn’t even realize they knew how to read.” While political discussions periodically broke out, they were all polite and low key, and even those at opposite ends of any particular issue soon found common ground in bashing Microsoft, or airport security regulations, or allied themselves with the age-old belief that “all politicians are liars and cheats.”

Once in the store, the new layout surprised veterans of other Apple stores, and those who had never been in an Apple Store were delighted at all the things to play with. The new design has roughly twice as many computers, iPods, and other gadgets on display as similarly sized Apple stores and, as many remarked, “They’re turned on! And working!” The Genius Bar, the iPod Bar, and The Studio were soon swamped; by 10:29, a video screen announced “Sorry, no more Geniuses are available today.” How sad to think that you can exhaust the supply of geniuses in less than half an hour.

It wasn’t clear if the very large staff will work there permanently or if they bulked up for the opening. Prior to opening the doors, the black-clad staff paraded out in a long line, clapping hands, shouting greetings, and leading cheers. Because of the throng, a count was impossible, but there were more than 50 though probably fewer than 100 staff members on hand.

The sales area, located in the back of the store, soon had a long but quickly moving line of customers, and a steady stream of people left with the signature white plastic Apple shopping bags. By noon, the Mall resembled a MacWorld Expo, with Mac fanatics, Mac laptops, iPods, black Apple T-shirts and white Apple shopping bags everywhere.

Naturally, not everyone knew there was a new store in the mall, but they soon found out. One mother, quizzing her daughter during lunch at the Mall food court, wanted to know why she wanted to go to the Apple Store instead of a clothing store. “Macs don’t have viruses, Mother.” “No viruses?” “None.” The mother looked skeptical, but agreed to “go look” at the Apple Store. The daughter positively beamed.

“But you still need blouses,” added the mother.

Earlier Photos

Columbia, Maryland, the second largest city in the state (even if it is unincorporated), finally joined Annapolis, Towson and Bethesda with its own Apple Store on September 23, opening at 10 a.m.

These photos, taken at Columbia Mall months prior to the opening, tell you nothing at all.

Apple Store Columbia Maryland

The store location near Hecht's department store (now Macy's), on the upper level. (Photo by Lawrence I. Charters)

Apple Store Columbia Maryland

Right next door is a Banana Republic, in case you feel a revolutionary computer needs a revolutionary wardrobe. (Photo by Lawrence I. Charters)

Victoria's Secret Columbia Maryland

Victoria's Secret construction storefront was more dramatic than Apple's. (Photo by Lawrence I. Charters)