The cast members are ready. The curtain goes up. It's showtime at the Apple Store in Palo Alto, Calif. Here comes our first contestant for Stump the Genius Bar Geniuses: Bill Mainzer of Portola Valley, Calif. He's clutching a MacBook Pro the size of a radiator. He looks worried.
"I've got a glitch," he says. "It keeps shutting itself off."
It's 10 a.m. on a recent weekday. For the next 11 hours, the 40 or so "Specialists" and "Creatives" and "Geniuses" employed inside this glass-skinned jewel box on University Avenue will eagerly welcome the Bill Mainzers of the world, cheerfully put out one fire after another, soft-sell first-timers on the mesmerizing features of the new iPad 2, and essentially play starring roles in one of the biggest blockbusters in the annals of American retail.
In a rare outbreak of media-friendly perestroika, Apple offered a Mercury News reporter and photographer a close-up day-in-the-life look at what some consider the chain's flagship, since it's literally down the street from former CEO Steve Jobs' home.
As anyone who's ever stepped inside one of Apple's 360 outlets knows, these are not simply stores. They are products in their own right, with all the design dazzle of a MacBook Air.
They kick out sales revenue that would make most shopkeeps salivate. And they are a destination, a veritable Tahiti for geeks.
On this day in downtown Palo Alto, the Apple Store will also serve as day-care center, lonely hearts club, homework haven, temporary homeless shelter, startup incubator and recording studio.
It's 10:10 a.m. and in walks Francesca Freedman of Menlo Park, Calif., trying to swap the white iPhone 4S she bought for her boyfriend "because he wants a black one." Alas, black ones are apparently in short supply. So despite the window poster boasting "The Perfect Gifts are Perfectly Easy to Get," Freedman will still be trying to make that swap seven hours later when she returns to wait in the nightly queue for available phones.
Still, smiling specialists like Anush Venkatesan and Bianca Antonio stand ready this morning to help, or at least offer moral support to haggard Apple fans. A clutch of customers gathers at the Genius Bar, where Apple's best and brightest turn loose their inner Sherlock Holmes on flummoxed customers.
An hour later, retired college professor Francina Nur is ready to pay for her new MacBook Pro. "I came for an iPad appointment," Nur confesses. "But I realized when I got here that I should upgrade my laptop." Her clerk, dressed in a red shirt that matches the red signage on the walls, is wearing a Secret Service-type earpiece that presumably allows him to communicate with every other red-shirted, wired-up clerk.
Olivia Viveros, a stay-at-home mom from Palo Alto, sidles up to the Genius Bar. What'll she have? "My iMac is slow at times," she says. "It keeps crashing, but I think it's because my kids keep downloading stuff. I need to clean it out." Like many here today, Viveros is a repeat customer and a huge fan of the store and its staff. "My kids love this place, too. What I love most is that you can touch and play with all the products. It's a clean, comfortable space, and no other store compares. Sony tried, but it just isn't the same."
Shortly after 1 p.m., visiting Swiss banker Isabelle Montegut, 38, is asking how she can set up an iTunes account based in the United States and access it from Geneva. She says she appreciates Apple's "secrecy and security. We try to do the same in banking: be discreet."
No problem there. Apple is as notoriously secretive about its retail operations as it is about its products. Curious about the size of the store? Apple won't release square footage. Wonder how many customers come through here each day? Apple won't say. How many staffers are there? No comment. Asked "Do you like working here?" one young clerk looks at the press handler for guidance, then answers: "I can't answer that."
After a mid-afternoon lull, the store comes alive. Of the 40 stools, only a few are unoccupied. Sarah Westbook, owner of Palo Alto's Piccadilly Pets, is at a horseshoe-shaped desk in the back where classes sometimes are given, working with an Apple specialist on setting up her new online -- and top secret -- business.
"I come in a couple times a week," she says, as a clerk fetches a cup of water for her 9-year-old Weimaraner, Luna, the Apple fandog at her side. "I love the people who work here, and they love my dog."
As the daylight fades, the neon WAXING and MASSAGE signs from across University Avenue reflect in the Apple Store windows, mixed in with Santa Claus chatting away on a super-sized iPad window display.
Kathleen Schwartz waits for an appointment to have her broken MacBook looked at ("it's getting wiggly," she says) while daughters Ellen, 9, and Elisabeth, 7, play a "Dora the Explorer" video game in the children's pod, both dressed up like fairies ("Every day for them," says Mom, "is fairy day.")
Near the front, silver-haired regular Rosemary Halley playfully grabs the arm of her young and handsome specialist, Venkatesan, while they talk about whether her "hunt-and-peck" typing style would work on the iPad she's lusting after. "He's the best," exclaims Halley, who would not give her age but admits "I stopped counting my birthdays quite a while ago." She says the staff "never hard-sells me on anything. The products sell themselves."
Dr. Ginny Fong is not quite so sold. "I'm so frustrated after spending three hours here," Fong says as she leaves the store empty-handed. She says neither Apple nor her carrier Sprint could figure out a problem with her new iPhone, with each company blaming the other.
Fong, though, seems to be in the minority as the sun goes down on another exciting day in Apple land. Middle-schooler James Pedersen works on an essay, a squatter on a huge MacBook Pro in the back ("When they catch me," he says, "they take away my chair to try and make me leave."). Geetha and Vijay Kancharia of Santa Clara, Calif., wait while specialist Chico Patel closes the 25 apps that had been quietly running and eating up their iPhone's battery life. And the entire staff stops to applaud and hug a departing employee as she makes her way out of the store on her last day.
And while Freedman returns as instructed, hoping to swap that white iPhone for a black one, and eight-year-old Holden Johnson takes a workshop on recording his own music using GarageBand ("I want to learn whatever the teacher teaches us," he says), darkness settles over Palo Alto, and the Apple Store comes aglow like a cathedral lit up with a million candles.
From one end of the shop to the other, all but a few of the 50 customers seem enraptured, sitting or standing silently, their heads bowed in reverence toward the iPads and iPhones they hold in their fingers like rosary beads.
APPLE STORES BY THE NUMBERS:
--Total number worldwide: 360
--Total number of employees: Approximately 36,000
--September quarterly retail revenue of all stores: $3.6 billion
--Average revenue per store in that quarter: $10.7 million
--Number of visitors to all Apple stores over time: more than 1 billion
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