Little Local Joys: The Puzzle Exchange

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When Brian Loomis and his family snapped the final piece into the last jigsaw puzzle in their stash, he knew it was time to put something else together.

Rummaging through his East Lansing home, Loomis found the wood scraps, paint and hardware he needed. In less time than it took to complete a 1,000-piece puzzle, Loomis made a 2-foot by 1.5-foot by 2-foot rectangular box with a lid and sturdy legs. He spray-painted the stencil of a giant puzzle piece on the front and sides and set it under a protective eave.

Then, with the help of his wife Erica, he invited members of a neighborhood Facebook group to join a contactless puzzle exchange. 

“We didn’t realize how much puzzles were in demand until we needed more,” said Loomis. “Most everything was on backorder, and we knew we wouldn’t get them by the time quarantine was over.”

In early May, Loomis put three puzzles inside the colorful wooden box. Within a day, two were gone. Although the puzzle of Kate and William’s 2011 Royal wedding remained, other puzzles had joined the mix—including one of Garfield, a train, ice cream bar wrappers, and an exceptionally tricky puzzle of Michigan Petoskey stones.

“I haven’t met or interacted with anyone picking up or taking puzzles from the box,” he said. “But I do come out and check to see if the puzzles have changed. So far, they have.”

Because his house sits on a corner behind the Hannah Center, Loomis surmised it’s an ideal location for people to swing by in their car on a socially-distanced stroll. He also positioned the box off the driveway near his mailbox so people can make a beeline to pick up, drop off or exchange coveted jigsaws.

“I mentioned the anonymous puzzle exchange the other day when I was on an international conference call,” said Loomis, who works as a computer consultant. “The people on the call remarked it was a great idea and that they were going to do something similar.”

Brian Loomis and his puzzle box.

Loomis said he, Erica, and his two teens began “puzzling” within a week of Michigan’s first stay-home stay-safe order in March. The family found doing puzzles was something they could start and come back to at any time, and was a welcome relief from too much screen time. Plus, everyone had a role–his daughter the edges, his son filling in shapes and colors, while he and his wife sorted pieces for the “big picture.”

“We hadn’t done puzzles for a number of years with the kids,” he said. “They really got into it, and so did we.”

When it came time to restock, the supply chain of traditional jigsaws was stretched months beyond demand, prompting Loomis to search for less conventional styles. Among the puzzling alternatives were designs involving large cutouts and smaller filler pieces, and those combining gold foil and cardboard pieces. Still, he yearned for the traditional.

The puzzle box, Loomis said, provided a practical solution for getting the now high-demand, harder-to-find traditional jigsaws. It’s also a way to help others swept up by the puzzle craze to satisfy their new-found passion for an old-school pastime.

“We’ve enjoyed doing puzzles because it brings us all together,” he said. “It’s satisfying doing all the steps along the way, and in finding objects and completing them. Whenever we get one done, we take a picture. It’s just fun.”

Want to pick-up, leave or exchange a puzzle? Swing by 404 Southlawn Ave. in East Lansing and look for the puzzling and colorful box in the drive.

Correction, 6:30 p.m.: When originally published, this article referred to a puzzle in which Kate married Harry. An Anglophilic ELi reader pointed out that Kate, in fact, married Harry’s brother William. We have not sent a fact-checker to examine the royal wedding puzzle, because of the pandemic. We can only assume the puzzle does not constitute subversive fan fiction, and that ELi described it in error. Therefore, the article has been corrected, and now describes a puzzle that would not upset the Queen.

ELi’s “Little Local Joys” series is sharing small things that bring us joy and hope during the coronavirus outbreak.

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