With the ongoing effects of COVID-19 and snowy weather setting in, people are always seeking new ways to entertain themselves inside. Which is one reason why Facebook groups like Needham Puzzle Swap! and Free Jigsaw Puzzles JP have gained hundreds of new members in the past year. That’s right: puzzle swapping. It’s all the rage.
Having lost interest in their newsfeeds and streaming services, a growing number of Bostonians have become consumed with picturesque scenes. A quaint Parisian cafe. Exotic birds. Mountains of sweets. Libraries teeming with leather-bound books. Palm trees against a bright blue sky. Piece by piece, they’re creating something beautiful.
When the pandemic hit last March, buying puzzles became nearly impossible. Puzzle distributors across the country were overwhelmed by an influx of orders. According to a CNBC article last April, gamemaker Ravensburger saw their jigsaw puzzle sales grow 370 percent year over year at the end of March. In September, Vermont-based Stave Puzzles told the Globe the pandemic-timed demand left them “scrambling to keep up” with fulfillment of their hand-cut, artisan puzzles that sell for $1,000 to $6,000.
Jasmine Moran’s Facebook group, Cambridge/Somerville Jigsaw Puzzle Exchange, stemmed from the Buy Nothing Cambridge group in August 2018. This is true for most local puzzle swapping groups. Buy Nothing or Everything Is Free Facebook groups offer members the chance to give something away for free, but don’t allow asking for something in return. Those seeking to combat the jigsaw shortage sought out puzzle-specific Facebook groups that were fully centered around trading.
Over the course of the pandemic, Moran has watched her group “skyrocket,” going from 166 members in March to 505 at the time of reporting. As a Cambridge-based acupuncturist and Chinese medicine practitioner, Moran thinks puzzling offers a much-needed escape from an increasingly virtual world.
“We’re leaving our bodies behind,” she said. “Your mind is completely connected to the physical motion you’re doing and that is so important in any kind of meditative practice.”
There’s a certain physicality to puzzling that doesn’t exist on the screen. Dump the pieces onto the table, touch them with your hands, slide them around, push them into place. “It’s so restorative to do that,” added Moran.
Puzzling also helps people feel less alone. Naomi Goldman, an early member of Needham Puzzle Swap!, began doing jigsaw puzzles four years ago when she lost her husband.
“It was a good way to relax and get my mind off things,” the Needham resident said. Now, her puzzle group is dependable in a way other Facebook groups aren’t. Goldman is continually surprised by how responsible everyone is. “There’s just no drama,” she explained. “Everyone is respectful and kind. I think it’s something about puzzle people, they’re good people.”
For Moran, these groups offer a sense of community that many lost during the pandemic. “The way people are communicating about the puzzles with each other feels very personal,” she continued. “Everyone is super grateful. It’s filling some
need as well for feeling part of something.”
These Facebook groups’ walls are filled with members’ posts of photos of up-for-grab puzzles. Typically, above each photo is the number of pieces (some may be missing), what condition the puzzle is in, how difficult it is to complete, and what the individual may be looking for in return. As comments multiply below, the puzzle is assigned in the order of who responds first. Puzzlers private message each other with trading options. To help abide by social distance safety precautions, all drop-offs and pickups are contactless. Puzzles are usually placed in bags and left on front porches, anywhere they won’t be ruined by rain or snow.
Amy Lurie Schulman and Jodi Rooney, admins of Needham Puzzle Swap!, introduced handwritten lists that neatly order interested puzzlers from the original Facebook post. It’s up to the puzzle holder to write out the list of upcoming names and place it in their box. When each member completes the puzzle in their possession, they cross off their name and send a private message to the next individual on the list. If they are ready to accept the puzzle, they’ll arrange a time to swap.
Connor Barusch, founder of Free Jigsaw Puzzles JP, echoes that drama is hard to come by in these puzzle swapping communities. “I haven’t seen any negative interactions, which might be the whole point,” he said. “People are just happy trading puzzles and keeping each other safe.”
When stray pieces are found in between couch cushions or scooped from the dog’s mouth, people quickly notify the group with a photo of the piece. “Found this while cleaning,” one puzzler from Cambridge wrote next to a mustard-colored piece. “I’m happy to send it by post if we’re not easy-walk neighbors.”
It’s common for puzzles to be in frequent circulation. Roni Eng, an active local member of Waltham Puzzle Swap, takes only two days to complete a 1,000-piece puzzle. Because she likes an added challenge, Eng rarely uses the box as a guide, blindly creating the image as she goes.
Waltham Puzzle Swap requires each new member to have at least one puzzle to trade upon joining the group. Eng recently sponsored a new member with two puzzles. “Once she’s done with those two, she can move onto two more from other people,” she said.
With constant trading, protecting the puzzles’ structural integrity becomes a must. Some puzzle brands are made well enough to survive long-term swapping. Others need extra care. Rooney, of Needham Puzzle Swap!, is always coming up with inventive solutions. To ensure her pets, or children, don’t disturb a half-done puzzle, she covers it in an old shower curtain and places heavy books on top to weigh it down. She also started placing a glue stick in each puzzle that she trades, for when the pieces inevitably start to peel.
Rooney said that because of the increase in members, there are “tons of puzzles,” too many to count. They even have duplicates in case one bites the dust.
Overall, there’s a surprising level of revival that puzzle trading brings. Schulman, of Needham Puzzle Swap!, said she gets excited when she receives a puzzle she’s had her eye on. “I think it’s really nice to have something to look forward to,” she said. “I know that’s hard for a lot of people right now. Even if it’s something as small as a puzzle and it brings you joy, then I think that’s wonderful.”
Here is a sampling of the Facebook puzzle-swapping groups in Greater Boston. All allow new members if you live in the specified area.
- Brookline Puzzle Swap: facebook.com/groups/205506180327160
- Cambridge/Somerville jigsaw puzzle exchange: facebook.com/groups/494993790966222
- Eastie Puzzle Swap: facebook.com/groups/eastiepuzzleswap
- Free Jigsaw Puzzles JP: facebook.com/groups/2112872279026507
- Medford, MA Puzzle Swap: facebook.com/groups/870633420359192
- Needham Puzzle Swap!: facebook.com/groups/164255721659001
- Somerville Puzzle Swappers: facebook.com/groups/1572466482841127
- Waltham Puzzle Swap: facebook.com/groups/729941010900350/about
- ZWB Games & Puzzles Boston Area (Zero Waste Beginners sub group): facebook.com/groups/3023785084417044
Colin Kirkland is a writer in Somerville. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Colinjkirk247.