Peeking through the fairy doors

By Omar Mahmood, Daily Arts Writer
Published September 2, 2014

There is a fairy door by the box office at Michigan Theatre. I sat in that little corner on a Sunday afternoon, watching the people as the fairies do. A good-looking couple, just a tad too old to be undergraduates, read the listings as they stood holding hands by a poster for Boyhood. He wore a gayly colored shirt and a fedora, and she wore a black-and-white patterned dress with a brown buckled belt.

A car revved by on Liberty, its windows down in the afternoon sun, the radio blasting. The couple didn't look around at the car. Instead, as if they overlooked the rest of the world, he took her and and twirled her around, and they danced a slow dance not altogether in accord with the music. The world has a way of coming alive when one watches from a fairy door.

Old German folklore tells us that once upon a time, in the woodlands, there lived fairies. But more than that is only humble guesswork. Still, I wondered what fairies really look like. And I would trust only my own eyes to tell me. So I set out to find a fairy for myself. As it happens, Ann Arbor is the place for such a quest. The world's only bonafide fairyologist has lived here all his life.

Ann Arbor resident Jonathan B. Wright became interested in fairies in 1993, when the first-ever fairy door appeared in his 100-year-old fairytale home on the Old West Side. It had been built into the baseboard of a hallway leading to a stairwell — six inches tall and whitewashed, framed modestly, and topped off with a bronze doorknob. It opened up to a checkered floor and a flight of black-and-white stairs.

Many years later, Who’s Behind The Fairy Doors is now a book published by Wright that documents his fairyology research. It is largely based on eyewitness drawings and descriptions that he then renders, as an artist, into fuller-fledged illustrations. In the book, Wright tells us that imagination is the key to these fairies. But I was more skeptical.

My first stop was the storied Michigan Theatre. Underneath the lightbulb-studded canopy, right beside the box office, is a set of varnished double doors. It sits tucked away in the middle of the fanfare. Fairies are notoriously shy of human folk, so I approached the little door with some trepidation. I knelt down and peered inside. The door was hardly ornate, with humble knobs and hinges, but an ode to the Theatre all the same. Panes of glass revealed a picture frame, which I suppose is how the fairies watch their films.

I saw a scattering of ‘fairy droppings’ — pennies, a little pink hairpin, small golden-brown leaves from past fall, a shiny blue pebble, some M&Ms and a wad of Orbitz. I also noticed a green glitter that I would later see at every subsequent fairy door I visited.

I leaned my back on the wall of the post office and folded my legs, my Peshawari chappals not so out of place. I gazed up at the ceramic ceiling, painted all sorts of gold and pink and red and swirled into flowers and ribbons. I hadn’t noticed it before, but fairy dust does put one in a ceiling-gazing mood.

There was a festival going on that Sunday as the fall term came around. Main Street was merry. I came to find myself in the original Sweetwaters on S. Ashley and W. Washington Street. I looked about in vain for a fairy door, finally coming up with the shamelessness to ask the girl at the bar. She rolled her eyes at your twenty-year-old fairy hunter and pointed behind me. There it was: not only a little fairy door, but a dainty little fairy coffee shop next to it as well.

As I looked on, a little girl in a glittery purple dress and colorfully rimmed sunglasses scurried over to the fairy door and knelt down, as her parents looked on. I moved to the side, recognizing that before her I was but a patzer. The fairies were cooking, she told us.

I found that her parents had recently moved to Ann Arbor and were excited about fairy doors. They were even thinking about getting one at their new house, though that of course is best left to the fairies. Their daughter, Adia, agreed very kindly to be interviewed. Five years old, her blue eyes twinkled with delight as she giggled into her mother's ear. With some humility, she gave earth-shattering testimony of the time she saw a fairy. It was a girl fairy.

“She had pink and blue wings and a pink and blue dress,” Adia told me.

As we talked, I learned that the fairy had wings. Adia had given her a penny.

“We found it in the book library,” she continued, this time without prompting from her mother. “They didn't tell people because the fairies get mad. But they told me anyway.”

Emboldened by the promise of Adia’s testimony, I made my way down to Peaceable Kingdom to visit another fairy door. Here the offerings seemed to have been all collected, but that familiar green glitter was present all the same. The fairy door’s resemblance to the door of the business is immediate, though the fairies have embellished it with some seemly railings, and built upon the step. These urban-fairies have not forgotten the charm of their woodland forefathers, though I would have to ask Adia to be sure.

There aren’t too many better ways of discovering Ann Arbor than by hunting for fairies. But be careful of what you might find. As I roamed about in search of more doors, I stopped by the Black Pearl. A helpful waiter there told me he had seen a door close by, and walked me down a couple stores to a little crevice beside Life is Good. This door was taller by a bit than the other doors I had seen, and also a bit ominous. I paced back and forth on Main Street, examining the neighboring storefronts, but the door seemed to have a design of its own this time. And it was a little too hidden.

This, Wright believes, could be Ann Arbor’s first goblin door.

Correction appended: A previous version of this article misstated Jonathan B. Wright's name, book title and the location of the Sweetwaters on S. Ashley and W. Washington Street.