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Costa Mesa Realtor pieces together interest in jigsaw puzzles at monthly exchanges

Kristi Edison and Mary Fewel, from left, with puzzles where they offer at a popular monthly puzzle exchange in Costa Mesa.
Kristi Edison and Mary Fewel, from left, stand behind 200 or so jigsaw puzzles people can take and swap at a monthly puzzle exchange in Costa Mesa.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Anyone who’s solved a jigsaw puzzle may have experienced the one-two punch of puzzling — the dizzying high of snapping the final piece into place, followed by the profound letdown of dismantling one’s victory and shoving the box into a closet.

But a few dozen residents local to Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and Huntington Beach have developed a workaround strategy that allows them to puzzle to their hearts’ content, largely for free, and then offer up completed works to be solved by others in a monthly exchange.

Puzzlers meet on the third Friday of each month, from 4 to 6 p.m., at 2000 Republic Ave., the home of Costa Mesa resident and Realtor Mary Fewel, whose garage, for the span of a few hours, is transformed into a puzzle bazaar where visitors can peruse hundreds of options and swap and return boxes at their leisure.

Puzzler Jazzlyn Lewis, with dad John, takes home a stack of puzzles Friday from the garage of Mary Fewel's Costa Mesa home.
Puzzler Jazzlyn Lewis, with dad John, takes home a stack of puzzles Friday from the garage of Mary Fewel’s Costa Mesa home, which hosts an exchange the third Friday of each month.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“I’m terrible — there should be a 12-step program,” jokes Fewel, 65, who has amassed more than 200 puzzles. “Lately, I’ve been doing a couple a month. I’ll stop and say, I’m going to do this for 15 minutes and be there two hours later.”

Wanting to share her interest with others, Fewel had been trying to get people on the exchange bandwagon for years, offering already-solved jigsaws out of her real estate office.

A few took her up on the offer, but it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic, when she began offering free puzzles from her home to passersby, that the endeavor gained traction. Neighbors long cooped up and with little else to do gladly scooped them up and were encouraged to swap them once they’d finished.

Some of the 200 or so puzzles at Mary Fewel's popular monthly puzzle exchange in Costa Mesa.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Across town, Costa Mesa resident Jennifer Bloomfield was discovering puzzles in the pandemic, looking for activities that might entertain her boyfriend Nate’s 14-year-old son. He picked out a Star Wars puzzle on Amazon, at a price point of about $20, and the trio got down to work.

“He was not into it at all, but Nate and I were hooked,” Bloomfield, 50, said Friday. “I think it’s just hunting and finding the piece — there’s something about that search that’s exciting. It’s probably the same thing that draws a person to a crossword puzzle.”

However, the prospect of dropping $20 or more for something the couple would quickly assemble and never use again encroached upon her newfound passion. So, Bloomfield went to the social networking site Nextdoor to find others like her.

Visitors Friday at Mary Fewel's Costa Mesa garage for a monthly puzzle exchange that attracts people all over the community.
Visitors and neighbors gather Friday at Mary Fewel’s Costa Mesa garage for a monthly puzzle exchange that attracts puzzle fans from throughout the surrounding community.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“I put a notice on Nextdoor that read: ‘DORK ALERT! Does anyone want to trade puzzles with me?’” she said, remembering how that one question triggered an avalanche of responses.

Puzzle fans in Costa Mesa and nearby cities heeded Bloomfield’s call and began posting pictures of completed puzzles with the number of pieces, arranging pickups between two or three people.

When Fewel saw the Nextdoor posts, she knew she’d found her people and offered her home as a brick-and-mortar venue for monthly exchanges, under the Nextdoor group “Puzzle Exchange.” Several months later, the meetings have become a de facto happy hour, where friends meet up to laugh, catch up and discuss tips with newcomers.

A dinosaur-shaped puzzle piece is part of the 200 or so puzzles at Mary Fewel's monthly puzzle exchange in Costa Mesa.
A dinosaur-shaped puzzle piece is part of the 200 or so puzzles at Mary Fewel’s popular monthly puzzle exchange in Costa Mesa.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“It’s a lot of fun, and there’s a great sense of community,” said Costa Mesa resident Kristi Edison, a friend of Fewel’s who’s been called “the puzzle pusher” for her insistence someone take a puzzle (or two or three) whenever they stop by.

Edison, 64, began solving jigsaw puzzles as a child, when her mother, who worked as a night-shift nurse, came home and needed quiet time.

“I usually always have one going — it’s like therapy,” she said. “You just tune everything out and concentrate on the puzzle.”

Most boxes in the exchange contain 500 to 1,000 pieces, though some easier sets are on hand to accommodate different ages and abilities. But while puzzles are at the heart of the monthly meetups, the exchanges have become more than transactional events.

Newport Beach resident Nikki Repp, 74, comes to Fewel’s house with her husband to have some refreshments and talk with people in the group who’ve developed friendships with one another.

“Some of us have even gotten together and have done things outside of puzzling,” she said, adding the exchanges are a great reason to get out of the house. “There are many people who appreciate what [Mary] is doing.”

As far as Fewel is concerned, there’s no reason for someone to do the same puzzle twice.

“Some people are cheap and so keep doing the same puzzle over and over,” she said. “I’m like, no honey, stop it, just bring it here.”

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