Ann Arbor, Mich. —
The T-shirt read, “Ann Arbor — six square miles surrounded by reality.” I like that definition. And I loved being in Ann Arbor. Their alternate universe seemed so much friendlier and kinder than a lot of what passes for reality these days.
The University of Michigan is here and is, literally, if not the elephant in the room, the major presence in the town. And it brings with it an air of intellectual excitement and diversity.
You’re as apt to find a Cuban sandwich shop or a Turkish restaurant as a burger bar. Music, art and theater thrive. A tolerant and welcoming community, its citizens represent a variety of races and ethnicities. It must have been this beneficent atmosphere that attracted a small population rarely found in American cities — fairies.
One must be particularly observant to detect their presence. I had been in town several days and had never suspected they were here until my next-to-last night in Ann Arbor when someone at dinner mentioned “fairy doors.” My curiosity piqued, I asked for more information.
Now, mind you, most of what I learned was hearsay. I never spoke to anyone who has actually seen one of the tiny residents. But there is evidence, oh yes, there IS evidence. Jonathan B. Wright is the local authority on all things fey.
The first fairy architecture appeared in his home in the early 1990s. He “discovered” tiny doors, even tiny rooms in his house. It was a little more than a decade later that, perhaps feeling crowded, some of the tiny creatures began occupying downtown businesses. Today there are more than two dozen little doors scattered through the town.
The following morning I decided to go on an expedition to find the teeny portals. It was a bit before 10 a.m. when I arrived at a delightful shop called Peaceable Kingdom. A shade, bearing the message, “Sorry, we’re closed,” was pulled down over the window of the front door.
Glancing down at my feet, I spotted a tiny door to the right of the doorway. Bending down, I could see a tiny shade over the window — “Sorry, we’re closed.” Soon a lady arrived with a key and invited me in.
“Yes,” she told me, “we do have fairies here. Would you like to see in their shop?” Inside her store, on my knees, I looked through a little window. Tiny shelves and display cases held a variety of items.
She also gave me a little map to help me find more fairy doors. Only a few of the doors were listed on the map but during my explorations locals gave me directions to a few more. It’s my guess that nobody knows where all the doors are — and sometimes doors disappear. Fairies seem to like their privacy.
Using the map made things easy but it also let me know that I’m not very observant. I’d passed by a number of the doors several times in the previous days and had never seen them.
Ann Arbor children are much more adept at tracking them down. And they often leave little gifts for the fairies. Cheerios and pennies seemed to be popular along with shells, ticket stubs, even tiny flowers.
Some of the doors are at ground level. Others are a little higher up — perhaps proof that fairies do have wings. Some of the fairies preferred to have their doors inside a shop rather than on the sidewalk. Most were shut tight — again, that fairy privacy thing.
As I was photographing one of the doors, a Michigan mom and her son stopped to watch. “Have you seen the Village?” she asked. It wasn’t on my map so she gave me directions to a street corner a few blocks away. Tucked into a small space by a parking garage and protected by a big people fence, was a little fairy village with a miniature church and tiny houses.
Another resident pointed me in the direction of the fairy bank. On the backside of the Bank of Ann Arbor, near the drive-in lanes, was a fairy ATM and a fairy safe. I opened the safe door to find an accounting of the Fairy Dust Fund. Fairies must be frugal as they have a hefty balance in that account.
The last site on my trek was a scary one. I ignored the warning on my map, “It does not seem wise to encourage people to be monkeying about a goblin door. It seems that a goblin or goblins have made this out of jealousy of the urban fairies.” It was definitely a goblin door — taller than the fairy doors — and, as the map indicated, in an unseemly location with “pigeon poo and cigarette butts.”
I stopped back by Peaceable Kingdom and purchased a small book, “Who’s Behind the Fairy Doors?” by Jonathan B. Wright. Inside were numerous drawings of the little creatures made by the children of Ann Arbor and interpreted by the author. Obviously these children are more observant than I am. And Jonathan Wright has a better imagination than most people.
ELAINE WARNER is an Edmond-based travel writer.