They may be small, but they certainly haven’t gone unnoticed. Since the spring of 2005, fairy doors have been appearing all around downtown Ann Arbor. The first one popped up in Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea on West Washington Street. Others soon followed, at locations such as the gift shop Peaceable Kingdom, The Ark and the Ann Arbor District Library.
Intricate and unique, each fairy door is a miniature replica of the establishment in which it resides. The Sweetwaters door, for example, mirrors the outside of the café. Peering into the Peaceable Kingdom’s miniature door, the plates and little trinkets unmistakably resemble the store’s products.
But where did these little doors come from?
“What I hear is that when the fairies moved in and started building, the workers would come to the store in the mornings and find sawdust on the counter,” explained Lynn Antisdel, a Peaceable Kingdom employee.
Antisdel insisted that the fairy doors are quite literally built by fairies. She did mention, however, that there’s a man who has a special connection with them.
His name is Jonathan B. Wright, and he frequently refers to himself as a “non-certified fairyologist.” In an interview with the Daily, Wright maintained that fairies were responsible for the tiny doors.
“In 1993, the first fairy door that I know of was found in our house,” Wright said. “The door was not necessarily attributed to a fairy. My wife was running a childcare program in our home and it was the kids who found the door and they speculated on what might be living there — which included a ‘lion mouse’ and various other tiny beings.”
Wright upheld that the fairy door phenomenon began in 1993 (although no fairy doors were discovered downtown until 2005). He implied that it was in part inspired by other mythology, like Stuart Little, the Borrowers and other creatures that are “weensy and living in tight quarters.”
Wright says that fairies built the fairy doors in Ann Arbor, but he specifically refers to them as “urban fairies.” He clarified the difference between urban and woodland fairies, aside from the obvious habitat preferences.
“I see (urban fairies) as a kind of new generation of fairies, maybe ones that have got beyond some of the traditional foibles of fairies — being allergic to iron, etc. They’re a little bit more interested in people, and that’s why they live in closer proximity.”
Yet, many are still confused as to why these urban fairies build doors. Wright elaborated on this point as well.
“You wonder if they even need doors to get into spaces! I would say they’re more of a prop by the fairies that replicate a human convention. Not required, but more for fun.”
Wright also indicated that sometimes these fairies broaden their horizons, building objects other than doors.
“There was a car entered in (Ann Arbor’s) Rolling Sculpture Car Show by a fairy named PeZz, and it was a small Vernors- and Mentos-powered vehicle,” he said. “I don’t think fairies would need a car, per se — they supposedly have wings. But again, it just might be for fun.”
Wright has maintained his interest in fairy doors for so many years because he and his wife have always been intrigued by mythology and fairy stories. He commented that as more and more fairy doors began to appear in his house and eventually downtown, it grabbed his attention. A trained illustrator, Wright was inspired to write books on the subject and maintain a website, urban-fairies.com, which includes a history of fairy doors, their locations around Ann Arbor and any observations of urban fairy activity.
But perhaps another reason Wright has kept up his interest in fairy doors is the way they inspire children. During the Daily interview, which took place at Sweetwaters, a group of kids ran into the café and immediately began looking at its fairy door. Their curiosity brought a smile to Wright’s face.
“I like the fact that it’s free and it’s fun. This group showed up,” he said, as he gestured to the children surrounding the Sweetwaters door, “and they get to visit the fairy doors.”
And it’s not just children who get a kick out of these doors. Antisdel said that Peaceable Kingdom’s fairy door gets both children and adult visitors every day. Peaceable Kingdom also gives out a free map of all the Ann Arbor fairy doors.
But this map just includes all the fairy doors that are connected to Wright. Recently, fairy doors built by other “tribes” of fairies, as Antisdel puts it, have been appearing around Ann Arbor. These include the doors at the bookstore Crazy Wisdom and the one at the candy store This & That.
“We actually built our fairy door for our granddaughter,” said Andrea Graef, co-owner of This & That. “She likes the fairy doors around town, and that’s why we put it in.” Graef’s door, with a clear front revealing a miniature sweet shop behind it, also resembles her store.
Wright isn’t necessarily opposed to fairy doors built by other “tribes.”
“For me it’s more important to leave the mystery and the magic of how they appear than to take credit for them or something like that,” he said.
Wright also made clear that the fairy door phenomenon is far from over. He said we should definitely expect to see some new fairy doors around town in the near future. It seems that the urban fairies are hard at work.