With Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince hitting the big screen, I brush up on my Potter basics, reading the Half Blood Prince — twice — and persistently scouting the Internet for updates. That’s where I find Whimsic Alley, proclaiming itself as the “only store in the entire world” capable of fully outfitting a human seeking to join Hogwarts — Harry’s school of magic. I could have bought it all on the Whimsic Alley Web site, but Harry never missed a visit to Diagon Alley, the magical shopping bazaar in the Potter series. So I head to the Westside shop, at 2717 ½ Wilshire Blvd.
As I step into the Alley’s interior, I bump into some squealing teenagers. Owner Stan Goldin smiles at them, content. During Goldin’s visit to the 2003 Harry Potter convention in Florida, he realized Potter fans transcended age barriers. “There was hardly anything then that catered to grown-up fans who were fanatical about the series,” he reminisces. His products were a sellout at the convention and soon his Potter Web site business outgrew his Santa Monica home.
I make my way around, peeping into cubbyholes set up like a series of individual shops. First on my list is a wand, the most vital accessory in Harry’s world. It is said that “a wand chooses its master.” I step into Phoenix Wands, one of the “shops” inside the Alley, which is stacked with boxes that cradle beautifully carved wands. My fingers linger over them, and I finally select the one I first rest my fingers on. “It’s strange, but I have always noticed the same thing when the wands are laid out. People see, feel and go through different wands, but they somehow pick the one that their fingers rest on the first time,” says store manager, Erin Bise.
Next, I spot the “sorting hat” that assigns new students to their respective houses at Hogwarts. It sits next to Dumbledore’s headgear and Professor McGonagall’s pointed black hat.
In the robe shop, Goldin brings out garments in the four house colors. “You would be surprised at how many fans are interested in Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff, besides the often-quoted Gryffindor and Slytherin,” he says. He lays out robes that fit into every buyer’s budget, starting from the cheap ones at $35, “to the more real-looking wizard robes at 120 bucks.” Real-looking? Well of course this is real. We who’ve been drawn deeply into Pottermania are not exactly kidding around.
An assortment of parchment papers and exotic writing instruments is also on offer. In one corner I come across licensed Harry Potter merchandise and limited-edition collections of water balls, plaques, action figures and sculptures. They date to the early Potter period and are no longer produced. Original art signed by artist Fred Bode makes up part of Goldin’s prized personal collection, and he has authored a “spells” book — using contributions from store vistors. Some of the spells seem clearly created with Angelenos in mind, from how to conjure up a parking space to how to banish calories from food.
In fact, it’s clear from his spells book and Internet buzz that Harry Potter fans visit Los Angeles just for the cherished trek to Whimsic Alley. So for someone who wants to create an experience rather than a store, Goldin’s mission is accomplished. “I never knew I would be building a tourist destination when I set up this store,” he says. Raising a toast to that, I pop in my mouth a candy from a “skiving snack box” made by Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes. My wallet feels lighter — magic, clearly. “This is the place we are supposed to be,” reads the candy box ingredients. I couldn’t agree more.