In Ann Arbor, the magic happens when you look down

You will believe in fairies

By Lois Alter Mark,

Little girls aren't the only ones who love discovering Ann Arbor's fairy doors — Photo courtesy of Jonathan B. Wright

Ann Arbor, Michigan may be best known for its football team and the stadium affectionately referred to as "The Big House," but the city’s most magical sights are much, much, much smaller with a storied history that’s become the stuff of legend.

In 2005, a tiny little fairy door was discovered on the outside of Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea, at the bottom of the brick wall’s stone foundation. Although most people were delighted when they came upon this mysterious portal, a building maintenance man removed it a week later, thinking it was a case of vandalism. 

By then, though, the owners of Sweetwaters had fallen in love with it, and they were thrilled when the door re-appeared inside their shop, where it can still be found today.

A fairy enjoying a soak at Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea — Photo courtesy of Jonathan B. Wright

That spring, some urban fairies also moved into the Selo/Shevel Gallery and The Peaceable Kingdom, and a sense of excitement built around the city as people tried to anticipate where they would show up next.

They created urban legends about where the fairy doors came from, and shared them in journals that were left at each site. They also drew pictures of the fairies they saw or imagined, many of which were compiled in the award-winning book, Who’s Behind the Fairy Doors? by Jonathan B. Wright – who may or may not be the one responsible for them.

Wright, an Ann Arbor native with a permanent twinkle in his eye, is a certified fairyologist. "If you’ve seen The Wizard of Oz when the Scarecrow is able to rattle off the Pythagorean theorem once he receives a diploma, you have some notion of the process of becoming certified as a fairyologist," he laughs.

Fairy door at The Peaceable Kingdom — Photo courtesy of Jonathan B. Wright

Although he’s been a fan of the wee folk since his wife, Kathleen – who’s of Irish descent – introduced him to them when they were in college, he could never have predicted the overwhelming response to the fairy doors.

"They’ve become a phenomenon," says Wright. "I just love the way people’s faces light up when they encounter one. I often have a front row seat at Sweetwaters to watch young people –  and not-so-young people – discover and comment on the fairy door and the micro-brew cafe there. It’s simply a joy."

Wright points out that the reason each door seems to naturally fit the theme of the building in which it's located is that these specific buildings are attractive to the fairies, which is why they were chosen in the first place.

"Consequently, the fairies will mimic some of the architectural nuances of the building," he explains. "I suspect this is out of both an aesthetic sympathy and an instinctual desire for camouflage."

Fairy door at Nicola's Books — Photo courtesy of Jonathan B. Wright

At The Ark, for example, there’s a little ticket window next to the fairy door which dispenses human-sized tickets for various events, although there’s little information on them as to time, subject or location.

At Nicola’s Books, the fairy door above the fireplace is flanked by the spines of actual human books.

And the fairy door in the lobby of Mott Children’s Hospital has a sign inside identifying it as the "Wing Wing" for "Faireez, Insectz, Burdz and Batz."

"One of the most surprising aspects of the influx of fairy doors has been the discovery of fairy droppings," says Wright.

"No, these are not in the same category as deer droppings, as fairy droppings are not dropped by fairies. Rather, they are little tokens of appreciation like candies or custom-made hats or hand-knitted socks that are dropped at the doors by humans for fairies. It’s actually very moving."

The fairy doors have been so universally embraced that copycats are now being spotted in other cities around the world.

Fairy doors abound in Ann Arbor — Photo courtesy of Jonathan B. Wright

"I’m proud and pleased that others want to enjoy the fun and magic, but at the same time I make the skunk eye," admits Wright. "It seems like many of those cities building miniature doors are trying to attract tourists rather than fairies."

It feels right that Ann Arbor, with its quirky indie vibe, is the home of the original fairy doors and that Wright, a designer and illustrator with his own quirky indie vibe, is the one, um, documenting them.

The doors come and go without much fanfare, seeming to appear, disappear or get a new coat of paint suddenly. When a business closes or moves, so do its fairy residents.

In Ann Arbor, there are currently eight fairy doors easily accessible to the public plus a seasonal pumpkin cottage, all of which can be found on the map on Wright’s Wright, who has a handful of fairy doors in his own house, says he has a feeling the city will be welcoming more public doors this summer. This is great news for everyone.

According to Mary Kerr, President and CEO of the Ann Arbor Convention & Visitors Bureau, "Our urban fairies are a great example of what makes our city vibrant, bold and unapologetically unique. We love telling visitors about the fairy doors, and sending them off on a scavenger hunt to discover them all – and perhaps a goblin door as well!"

Wait! A goblin door?

"Oh, no, we mustn’t speak of this," warns Wright. "Apparently goblins made this one because they were jealous of the fairies. It does not seem wise to encourage folk to be monkeying about a goblin door."

Our advice? When in Ann Arbor, keep your eyes to the ground.