Waiting for iPhone: Columbus (Indiana) Discovers the iPhone

A few dozen people waited in line since early afternoon outside an AT&T store in Columbus, Indiana. At a few minutes past six o'clock, twelve were let in at a time, and in only a half hour's time, everyone in line plus at least ten others walked out with an iPhone and accessories. There were no hitches, and plenty of smiling faces. So why isn't it like this everywhere else in the country?

It may very well have been the nicest place to wait in line for an iPhone in America. With approximately 39,000 citizens, Columbus, Indiana, is about an hour's drive south of Indianapolis in slow traffic. A few decades ago when small town America became threatened by recession, a lackluster economy, and diminishing jobs, Columbus refused to wither away and become a ghost town.

There wasn't much chance of it becoming a tourist mecca anytime soon, so it tried to distinguish itself as a place worth living in, by investing time, effort, and money in architectural advances such as renovation and landscaping.

Its major employer is Cummins Diesel, whose 28,000 employees make diesel engines and electric generating motors. For decades, Cummins has had a close relationship with AT&T, leading up to a five-year contract signed last December to provide it with data center hosting services. So the Columbus/AT&T relationship is warmer than for perhaps most towns its size.

It's a shame Columbus' architectural advances never made it one mile north of downtown, to the AT&T phone center store. While about two dozen people stood in line since 1:45 this afternoon (no, not since morning) waiting for the first iPhones to be sold there, the AT&T store itself has been waiting, likely for years, for decent signage. It's difficult to tell what this building once was - its jagged front looks like it might have been a Hollywood Video, but its massive garage would make you think it was a fire station. Perhaps the third floor from another building was lifted up and deposited there by a tornado.

The AT&T phone center store in Columbus, Indiana, at about 5:30 pm on June 29, 2007.

From the outside, it would seem the unlikeliest place for a major event. And yet here it was, one site for the premiere of a major piece of modern technology. When the store closed as ordered at 4 pm this afternoon, a few of its employees waited outside along with the crowd. They swapped stories, told jokes, and probably kidded poor Jared - who manned the door - about having the only job in America where he's prohibited from purchasing an iPhone. He wants one, desperately. He even has dibs on the classy iPhone display case once the store's through with it, if anyone wants to volunteer to truck the 300-pound juggernaut back to his place.

It wasn't really a line per se as a gathering, since a lot of the employees knew some of the store's first iPhone customers that day, probably through school or around the neighborhood. Only later in the afternoon, when Jared hauled out an orange stand-up sign reading, "Please wait here for assistance," did people actually start queuing up. Perhaps the gravitas started setting in at that point.

About two dozen people finally formed a line just after a sales clerk hauled out this orange sign.

When I arrived at about 5:30, people along the side of the store were calling their friends and relatives on their previous generation phones. "You won't believe what I'm doing," said one fellow, before generating perhaps the fanciest explanation possible for the impending expenditure of six hundred bucks.

Not everyone understood. This is a public place of business, after all, and the center of cellular activity for most of Columbus. One lady on her way home from work stopped to pay her bill. The store's closed, she was told. Surely it's not closed for a lady with a check in her hand. No, I'm afraid it is, you see, we're about to premiere the iPhone.

The Eye-phone? Yeah, it's a new phone from Apple. She stared down the side of a building at two dozen people waiting eagerly to be among the first to purchase a telephone. From the look on her face, you'd think she was wondering whether to pinch herself.

Another fellow had a problem with a split in the casing, on what looked like a Motorola phone that really did look like tar was spilled on it. Sorry, sir, we're gearing up to sell the iPhone. There's a run on phones, he asked? Are they going out of style? Are you going out of business? Is there something I should know?

Next: Some folks who knew what the iPhone was...

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