Opening Night at the SXSW iPad 2 Pop-up Store

Scheduling the iPad 2’s launch on the second day of SXSW Interactive seemed like a massive inconvenience and a pretty stupid move, especially when you observe how much Mac (s aapl) gear gets trundled around the conference center. But then it turned into a flash of marketing genius when Apple launched a pop-up store in downtown Austin (the only existing Austin Apple stores are in suburban malls a $30 cab ride away). The store was set up in only three days, but there was still time to install the trademark pinewood floors and track lighting and to elegantly display the merchandise (new iPads and their cases). And, of course, like all real Apple stores, it glowed.

The line started Friday morning around 10 AM. Tim Street of mDialog was number six in line, figuring that he’d stick around until there was something better to do. He ended up taking meetings for mDialog during the wait, and was also interviewed by CNN.

He got out of the store a little after 5 PM, which by pure coincidence was when my friend Megan joined the line. Megan Westerby is the hero of this story — she had already agreed to pick up a second iPad for me if I wasn’t able to join her, so when my plans for the evening fell through I made sure to come and keep her company (not to mention put the charge on my own card). When I first found her, the line was all the way down Congress Avenue and wrapped around the block; the sun was still up and burning bright. The Apple Store employees, wearing their signature blue t-shirts for launch day, passed out bottles of water. Everyone seemed to be a bit buzzed with raw adrenaline.

YouTube (s goog) celebrity Phil DeFranco and director Tony Valenzuela were about ten feet ahead of us; jokingly, I asked why they were there. “I need a new phone charger,” DeFranco deadpanned.

They had DSLR cameras out to document the experience, and captured the most satisfying part of my time in line: when an Apple Store employee roamed down the line with cards, shouting out iPad models. “Verizon 3G?” he asked, and I raised my hand. He then asked for specifics on what model I needed — I’d been hoping for a 64 GB model, but then he said 32 GB and I figured, what the heck, I don’t need that much music storage. With that compromise made, he handed me my little slip of paper, representing one iPad that was officially mine once I made it into the store. I was still a half of a block away, but the exercise of waiting then became a zen-like experience

“What about AT&T?” Megan asked. The guy assured her that there were plenty of models for AT&T subscribers left. That tune started to change over the next hour — the cards clearly represented low-stock models. Soon the folks in blue t-shirts were distributing cards for AT&T (s t) models as well.

A line of people like this is a captive audience, and there was no shortage of people taking advantage of that, passing out cards, flyers or stickers (or saying hi to Phil DeFranco). The best by far were the guys from Sonos, whose magic fanny packs made them into walking phone chargers that waitees could plug into for a quick boost of power. They weren’t even iPhone-only — Android adapters were available.

Getting to the entrance revealed why this process seemed to be taking so long; each customer was individually escorted into the store by an employee, who was inexplicably, extremely cheerful — if not giddy. About ten minutes before 8 PM, I handed my precious card to “Lauren,” who guided me to the back wall to pick out my cover (green), then to the line to check out.

According to Lauren, about 70 percent of the employees working the store (and there were at least two dozen of them on the floor alone) were Austin locals — employees at other, presumably now-understaffed Apple stores. I heard another say that he was from Georgia, and would only be there for a few days before traveling on to another location.

After we left, the store stayed open for another three hours; the last customers left around 11:15 PM. An Apple representative declined to disclose the store’s sales, but I heard one clerk say to her customer that the only Apple store with more iPads in stock was the Fifth Avenue location in New York. The rumor among conference attendees is that Apple sold out on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The lines weren’t quite as long, but still present.

Under the most boring of circumstances, three hours is a long time to spend waiting for anything. At SXSW, it was pretty painful, especially when people wandering by would ask what party we were waiting in line for. But I am far from the only one here who made the pilgrimage — the brightly colored paneled covers uniting us in slightly embarrassed solidarity. And while my iPad 2 is a little clunky — and I miss my keyboard and the control I have on my laptop — I feel like I hold the Internet in my hands. There’s definitely magic to that.