Apple is here and the geeks are gobbling

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      Apple is no longer the underdog in the world of home computers and personal electronics. In terms of digital music, for example, it rules the roost with the iPod and iTunes. As well, the coy arrogance that typifies Steve Jobs, cofounder and CEO, has become a defining characteristic of the multinational company.

      But the opening of Apple’s new retail outlet in Vancouver’s Pacific Centre proves that the little company that could is still able to engender the rabid, fan-based response that brought it back from the brink in the late ’90s. Despite almost no publicity or promotion, hundreds of people from throughout, and even beyond, the Lower Mainland lined up on the morning of May 24 to be the first to enter the computer-geek mecca.

      Apple stores are not simply retailers; they are, in the words of customer Michael Rubinic, “a different shopping experience”. Customers are greeted by a “concierge”, an orange-shirted staffer who helps customers find what they need, be that information from an expert or the location of a product. All computers on display are connected to the Internet—Apple Stores are known as places where backpackers go to check their e-mail—and the iPods are loaded with music. “Our goal is to make sure people are able to touch the merchandise and play with the computers,” Nooshin Toloui, the store’s manager, told reporters.

      At the back of the long room is the Genius Bar, which Toloui described as the “heart and soul” of any Apple Store. This is where customers go for free technical support. In a nod to busy lives, customers can even schedule an appointment, rather than wait for the next available techie.

      The one-floor store also has a kids’ section, featuring four computers for children to play with, and there will be year-round programs for youngsters. For instance, Apple Camp is a free summer program that invites kids to spend time with a specialist and learn how to use computers—well, Apple computers—to make podcasts, compose music, and create movies.

      The Vancouver location is number 212 in the worldwide Apple Store chain, and the first in Western Canada (there are three outlets in Toronto and one in Laval, Quebec). It’s smaller than other Apple stores in New York and San Francisco, but just as with the SoHo and Market Street locations, the Pacific Centre outlet reflects its community. The Apple Store on New York’s Fifth Avenue, for example, is ostentatious and flashy; Vancouver’s store is quieter, a bit reserved, humble even.

      Rubinic and Branko Matko, self-professed “die-hard Apple fans”, started the queue Saturday morning at 5:45 a.m. It stretched through the mall, spilled onto Granville and up toward Georgia, around the corner and past Howe. The diverse lineup included fathers teaching their sons to be Apple geeks, geek girls, and older persons who insisted they weren’t buying gifts for grandchildren but devices for themselves.

      “I’ve been waiting for this for years,” Vancouver’s Jules DuGuay said. “It’s a bit like a religious pilgrimage.” Qualicum Beach’s Linda Burton was standing in line to get her husband a T-shirt while he spent his Saturday attending a conference. Else Rose and her son Robert drove seven hours from 108 Mile Ranch to attend the opening. Rose told the Straight that her son was looking forward to her being able to get Apple training from somebody other than him.

      Just before the doors opened, the house lights dimmed, so the myriad of screens—on everything from 30-inch displays to iPod Nanos—cast a glow in the store. At this, the crowd cheered, then hushed as store staffers started shuffling toward the gate separating them from their customers.

      The noise level rose with the crowd’s excitement. Toloui shouted over the cheering customers, trying to introduce them to the store and her staff, and then stepped back to allow Matko and Rubinic to enter. Other customers followed until the store was overflowing. Thirty minutes after opening, the lineup still stretched out of the mall and down Granville and Georgia.

      The Apple mystique is alive and well in Vancouver.