NEW YORK — Shortly after sunrise Tuesday, the doors opened at the Old Courthouse Museum in Monroeville, Alabama, and a bell tolled.
In the hometown and residence of Harper Lee, it was time to start a marathon reading of "Go Set a Watchman," the second book no one ever thought they would see from the author of "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Lee fans worldwide stayed up late, awakened early and dashed off during meal breaks to pick up a copy of the year's most anticipated novel, "Go Set a Watchman," which came out Tuesday after months of the most unusual pre-publication attention in memory. From the moment publisher HarperCollins, announced "Watchman" in early February, reactions of ecstatic disbelief have been shadowed by concerns about the book's quality, the 89-year-old Lee's involvement in the release and the jarring transformation of Atticus Finch.
"I don't think it's going to damage Harper Lee's legacy," Susan Scullin, a reading teacher in New York City, said of "Watchman" as she prepared to buy a copy at the Barnes & Noble in Manhattan's Union Square.
"It might damage Atticus Finch's legacy, and that makes me a little nervous."
Booksellers from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Downers Grove, Illinois opened at midnight Tuesday, while Barnes & Noble stores began selling copies at 7 a.m., two hours earlier than usual. Pre-orders have already made "Go Set a Watchman" one of the year's top books and did not let up despite lukewarm reviews and the unwelcome news that Finch, one of the all-time literary heroes, was a bigot in "Watchman."
Amazon.com has called "Watchman" its most popular pre-order since the last Harry Potter book, which came out in 2007. At Barnes & Noble, the comparisons were not to a phenomenon like Potter, but to a follow up: Mary Amicucci, the superstore chain's vice president for adult trade and children's books, said that pre-orders were the highest since the 2009 release of Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol," his first novel since "The Da Vinci Code."
Sales for "Mockingbird," already a consistent favorite, have doubled at Barnes & Noble since "Watchman" was announced.
In slightly varying accounts, Lee attorney Tonja Carter has said she came upon the "Watchman" manuscript last year while looking through some of the author's papers. "Watchman" was written before "Mockingbird," but takes place 20 years later, in the 1950s.
A grown-up Scout, now living in New York, is visiting her native Maycomb, Alabama, and observing a community terrified by the Supreme Court's recent ruling that school segregation was unconstitutional. Scout herself is shaken when among those joining the racist mob is the man who in "Mockingbird" stood against it, her father, Atticus.
"I'm nervous," said Cher Caldwell, a 43-year-old English teacher from Kentucky. "I'm reserving opinion, but I'm ready to be mad. He's the epitome of the moral compass."
At the Waterstones bookstore in London's Piccadilly Circus, shoppers used their lunch hour Tuesday to pick up copies of "Go Set a Watchman." Some said they planned it to be their holiday reading, others said they wanted to know more about the beloved characters in "To Kill a Mockingbird" and had been eager for the book's release.
Lisa Coutts said her love of "Mockingbird" made her buy "Watchman" — it's the first hardback book she has ever purchased.
"'To Kill a Mockingbird' is my favorite book of all time," said Coutts, 42. "I read it at school. It's just a book I have to read during my holiday. I loved it and I thought - give it a go."
Lee, also known as Nelle, is expected to spend the day as she usually does at the 15-person assisted-living facility in Monroeville where she is closely guarded and only a short list of pre-approved visitors are allowed to see her.
Wayne Flynt, a historian and author, said he met with her on Monday and handed her an inch-thick stack of news articles and printouts about the release of "Watchman."
"She chortled," Flynt told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "She's absolutely delighted. I think she's a bit overwhelmed."
While Lee's day is expected to be normal, "normal means monotonous and boring, except when you just took over the media of the entire world, in which case it's a lot more exciting," he said.
Associated Press writers Kim Chandler in Monroeville and Ashley Chan in London contributed to this report.