A puzzle of Cinque Terre, a seaside village on the Italian Riviera

A puzzle exchange is nothing like the Black Friday sales where customers annihilate each other over doorbuster deals.

When I stepped into the room of my first puzzle exchange at a local library, I was expecting chaos. The rules were ripe for brawling: bring a puzzle or ten or none—and take a puzzle, as many as you can carry. All for free. People arrived with bags of puzzles to give away and left with those same bags filled to the brim.

What appeared to be a solution for a puzzler’s storage problem (I have them in bins and stuffed in the tops of the closets) turned out to be an enabler in disguise. I came with five puzzles and left with six.

It was the happiest, and kindest, shopping event I had ever experienced. The room was saturated with civility, as if The Great British Bake Off had supplied contestants with puzzle pieces instead of chocolate chips for their technical challenge.

I picked up a jigsaw puzzle with a fine arts theme (some of my favorites) and the woman next to be said, “Ooh, I love that artist. If you’re not going to take that one . . .”

I handed it to her. “Here. Knock yourself out.” She thanked me profusely clutching the precious puzzle to her chest.

And that was the way it went all around the room, people replacing miserliness with generosity: “You take it.” “Oh, no, you had it first.”  

What is it about puzzles that makes them so attractive, so addictive? I have a theory about patterns. The human brain loves to fit pieces together and compose something it can understand, whether it be an image on a puzzle table or story in a book.

Then there is the challenge. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, an avid puzzler and a member of The British Jigsaw Puzzle Library (can you imagine such a wondrous place), preferred to puzzle without a guide picture. She believed the pictures made the puzzle too easy.

But maybe the best reason to puzzle is to find serenity. When I sit down at the puzzle table, I do not think of anything. I sink into the colors and patterns and, before long, hours have passed and my stiff legs won’t work when I rise to leave.

I admit occasionally puzzles can crouch on our last nerve. Due to my aging eyesight, I have given up Impressionist puzzles after I nearly threw a puzzle of Monet’s Moruska Water Lilies out the window. I have learned to tamp my competitive spirit and step away from the puzzles that will break me.

As I mentioned, puzzlers are nice people, and we can be duped. I lost forty bucks to an online site offering puzzles at a discount. When my puzzles did not arrive (nor did the puzzle table I was promised as a “valued customer”), an investigation discovered it was a scam.

But, as I said, we puzzlers are a gentle people. I didn’t scream (not for long) or call the puzzle police. I decided to take the higher road and hope that my contribution to the scammers’ coffers came as a welcome and small windfall in a time of need—perhaps to feed their children or set up another site for another sucker.


One of my favorite puzzling memories occurred at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis where I took a break from holiday shopping and puzzled with my daughter for a good half hour in a museum room filled with antiques and whispering tourists. We left the crowded stores and relaxed in splendid quiet and serenity on a cold busy day.

Other ways to get away from it all: Try my books—contemporary novels (Up ThereBook of MercyMaud’s House) and cozy mysteries (Down Dog DiaryWarrior’s RevengeCrow Calling).