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Meet Apple's version of Deadheads

Die-hard fans camp out on Fifth Avenue for two days so they can be there when the flagship store opens. Video: In line for Apple

NEW YORK--Rain and thunder didn't deter die-hard Apple Computer fans from gathering in line outside the new Apple store on Fifth Avenue before Friday's grand opening.

Stormy Shippy, 20, traveled 1,550 miles from his home in Dallas and camped out most of Thursday night and all day Friday on Fifth Avenue with about two dozen other people as thunder rumbled and rain fell on the streets of Manhattan. Wrapped in rain gear, plastic tarps and even trash bags, these hard-core fans sat and stood most of the day waiting for the doors on the 32-foot glass cube, which caps the entrance to the subterranean store, to open at 6 p.m. EST.

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Video: In line at the big opening
It's not just the fans who show up, but Mr. Apple himself.

Like Deadheads, the storied fans of the band Grateful Dead, these Apple fans crisscross the country, and even the world, camping out all night to be . Shippy, who recently graduated from the University of North Texas, was the first in line at the London opening back in November 2004.

"I went to London specifically for the opening. I know; it sounds really sad, huh?" he joked. "There's no explanation for why any of us are here this early. People wait outside for concerts or to see celebrities, so why not to see the opening of an Apple store?"

The enthusiasm and heartiness of Apple fans like Shippy is a testament to the cultlike following Apple has established over the years. Back in 2001, when Apple first started opening retail stores around the country, analysts were skeptical that the strategy would work. But Apple's strong marketing and the popularity of the iPod music player and its penetration into the mainstream consumer market have helped make Apple's retail endeavor a great success.

But aside from the bottom-line success of Apple's retail strategy, the Apple stores and grand openings have taken on a life of their own, creating a community of followers. The showy design and architecture of the stores themselves have helped make their openings an event.

Gary Allen, the No. 3 man standing in line alongside Shippy, appears to be the ringleader of the Apple groupies. Allen, 58, has traveled from his home in Berkeley, Calif., to 12 Apple store openings in the past five years. His first store opening was in Palo Alto, Calif., in October 2001.

"I had never really done anything like this before," he said. "My 14-year-old son talked me into it."

A social event

Since that first experience, Allen said, he's gotten hooked. Three years ago he created a Web site to chronicle his Apple store travels. He's been using free Wi-Fi access in the General Motors Plaza on Fifth Avenue to post pictures and updates to his blog.

Through the years, Allen has traveled to openings in Japan and London. And he plans to go to Europe later this year for an Apple store opening in Rome. His son, who's now in college and studying in Spain, may join him for that opening, he said.

For Allen and other people standing in line, such as Monte Nutzman, 55, from West Des Moines, Iowa, coming to Apple store openings is more about meeting people and being part of an event than actually seeing what the inside of the store looks like.

"It's really a social event," Allen said. "There are other Apple enthusiasts here, and it's fun to meet likeminded people. It's also our way to express our support for what all the employees of Apple do."

Nutzman and Allen met at the opening of the Apple store near Union Square in San Francisco in November 2004. Nutzman, who's divorced with two grown sons, said traveling to Apple store openings has become a hobby for him.

He came to New York City back in 2002 for the opening of the Apple store in SoHo. He's also been to openings in the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., just outside of Minneapolis, and the store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. He was also the first person in line for the opening of the Apple store in his home town of West Des Moines.

Of course the thrill of seeing Steve Jobs, Apple's CEO, also doesn't seem to get old for these Apple fans. Allen and Nutzman, who each had professional-looking cameras hanging from their necks, lined up with dozens of other people on Friday morning as Jobs and several other people walked around the 32-foot glass cube entrance inspecting the workmanship before the grand opening.

"I've seen Steve Jobs at a few of these openings," Allen said. "But it's a real thrill to see him come here and walk around the glass cube, which he supposedly helped design. I think the cube is fantastic. It's designed to attract people to the edge, so they can look down into the store. It's really incredible."

Despite waiting in line for nearly 48 hours, many of the fans won't likely buy anything once they get inside the store. Nutzman said he might buy something small as a keepsake, but Allen and Shippy said they hadn't planned on buying anything. And neither of them expects to win any of the new MacBooks that Apple is giving away every hour for the first 24 hours the store is open.

"I'll buy whatever I need at the store in Texas," Shippy said. "I'm just hoping to get one of the 2,500 T-shirts they are giving away."