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Opening the secrets behind fairy doors in Ann Arbor

Associated Press

Ann Arbor — Fairy doors in downtown Ann Arbor, as well as a few other parts of town, had a rather inauspicious start: namely, an eviction.

Yes, the first fairy door appeared in 2005, outside Sweetwaters Coffee and Tea, and it stayed there for about a week.

“It was on the exterior of the building,” said Sweetwaters’ co-owner, Lisa Bee. “I didn’t even know about it. But the person who owns the building is really good about keeping it neat and clean, so he was taken aback by this little door just showing up. He asked if we knew who had done this, and then he had a maintenance team remove it.”

Bee alked with her staff about the door, and soon, one person discreetly came forward and spilled the beans: The man behind the fairy door was Ann Arbor native (and Sweetwaters regular) Jonathan B. Wright, who had welcomed fairies, by way of doors and miniature rooms, into his family’s 100-year-old home for more than a decade.

“He’d just wanted it to be something fun you spot when you walk by,” said Bee, who had set up a meeting to talk with Wright. “ … I thought it would be a five-minute thing, but we ended up talking for over an hour.”

Bee arranged for the maintenance team to return the door to Wright, and the owners approved the door’s presence inside the cafe.

“I asked, ‘Do you need some setup time?’ and he said, ‘Nope … You’ll just notice it one day,’ ” Bee said.

And so she did; plus, in addition to Sweetwaters’ fairy door, a miniature fairy cafe — with a button to turn the light on and off on top — appeared.

How often do people come by Sweetwaters to look at the fairy items?

“Every day,” Bee said.

Yes, kids and adults have sought out what Wright dubbed “Urban Fairy” doors around Ann Arbor ever since Sweetwaters established a permanent portal.

Doors at Peaceable Kingdom, Selo/Shevel Gallery (now closed), The Ark, Ann Arbor Framing Co., Red Shoes and more appeared the same year, and others at the downtown library and Nicola’s Books followed, making it possible for door hunters to take a kind of fairy tour around town.

Sometimes the doors appear on a business’s exterior, and sometimes they’re inside; and certain doors — like the one at Peaceable Kingdom — feature a view of a fairy version of the store behind the door.

But it all started with Wright, who bills himself as Ann Arbor’s resident “fairyologist.” In 1993, his family began finding fairy doors (and sometimes fairy furnishings and staircases) around the Wrights’ home: under the stairs, in the fireplace, in the kitchen.

“When my kids found the first one in our house, we kind of imagined that it might expand a little bit,” Wright said. “More showed up in our house. And once they started appearing downtown, it only made sense that they proliferated a bit.

“How much they proliferated, and how far, was more surprising to me.”

One part of the Ann Arbor fairy doors experience got phased out: a guest book, in which visitors, often children, left messages and drew pictures for the fairies.

Wright — who teaches classes in graphic design technologies at Washtenaw Community College, works part-time at a hardware store and does freelance assignments as a graphic artist — had often crafted the guest books so the cover visually echoed, or featured an image of, their affiliated door, and he used hand stamps on entries.

And kids’ drawings in the fairy door guest books led to the 2007 publication of Wright’s book, “Who’s Behind the Fairy Doors?”