Sunday, April 23, 2006
When walking around Ann Arbor, Mich., it's easy to miss the tiny doors with the tiny knobs and tiny hinges. And if you don't believe in fanciful creatures, you just might miss the point.
But what's certain is that someone -- real or magical -- is building what locals are calling "fairy doors," and the town is going all out for its new inhabitants.
Since last spring, the pint-size doors have been mysteriously appearing on structures around the University of Michigan college town: inside a coffeehouse, beside a grocer's steps, beneath a toy store window. The entryways are Thumbelina small and are so subtle and incongruent that they're easy to overlook -- or dismiss. At first glance, you might mistake one of the eight doors for an electric socket or a mismatched brick. But look closely and you'll see evidence that, yes indeed, something very little could live in there.
Forty-five miles west of Detroit, Ann Arbor is the ideal canvas for such a quirky display of art and imagination; its population skews young, liberal and bohemian, and one of its biggest annual events is the Hash Dash, which celebrates the liberation of pot. When the fairy doors starting popping up, curiosity grew: People wondered who built them -- and how they could get a fairy door in their own home. Maps were printed so visitors could, in the spirit of a scavenger hunt, track down the intricate, fragile doors.
Apparently, no one (at least those who are talking) will admit to having seen man, woman or fairy hammering away at the teensy doors. But Ann Arbor's resident fairy researcher, Jonathan B. Wright, has some intriguing theories.
At Sweetwaters Cafe, just a table away from a white fairy door built into a brick wall, the 46-year-old storyteller and illustrator explained that the woodland, forest and flower fairies had been living in nature but were being displaced by urban sprawl. Searching for a new domicile, the winged ones -- who count among their relations the Tooth Fairy and Tinkerbell-- ventured into Ann Arbor. (Yes, we know what you're thinking.) Wright surmised that, liking what they saw, they decided to uproot to specific addresses amenable to fairies.
How does Wright know all this? Seems he has a direct line to the fairies, or else he's been reading too much Tolkien. "They are carefully selecting environments that are appealing to them," he said. "They are taking up residence in unobtrusive places and mimicking them."
The urban fairies have clear favorites. Judging by the locations of the doors, and by the items sold in the related stores, they enjoy toys, art, candy, fashion, deli meats, theater and caffeine. Wright hinted that they may also have a yen for books and chocolate.
From the street, the fairy doors are hard to spot; crouching is required. All but two are outside, and some have interior doors or windows as well. A few models swing open, allowing civilians to peek into the fairies' private life. At Red Shoes, for example, you can see a mini vestibule with an upholstered reading chair on a tile floor. The Peaceable Kingdom's doors shield a fairy general store whose wares include baby teeth, a plastic monkey, hand-knit socks and other gifts left by fairy admirers. A few establishments also have guest books where people can comment on the doors and ask pertinent questions like, "If faeries could order drinks at Sweetwaters, what would they get?" On occasion, an elusive fairy with great penmanship and bad spelling will respond (for the question above: dewdrops and gummy bears).
"Fairies are everywhere, you just have to look," reads one musing. Written like a true believer.
-- Andrea Sachs
Ann Arbor, Mich., is 45 miles west of Detroit. The majority of fairy doors are downtown. Some stores, such as Peaceable Kingdom (210 S. Main St.) and Selo/Sheval Gallery (301 S. Main St.), carry free maps of the fairy doors.