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."
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