Puzzles growing more popular ‘while stuck at home and going stir crazy’

Puzzle demand peaked during the Great Depression. With the economy in free fall and people under “stay at home’’ orders, puzzles are back in vogue.

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Tim Southerst says business is up at PUZZLES in Lewes. (Courtesy of Tim Southerst)

Raymond Sonderfan owns Shrimpy’s Bar & Grill near Delaware’s Rehoboth Beach. But with his dining area shut because of the coronavirus pandemic, he has down time galore while overseeing takeout service and sanitizing.

So Sonderfan has resorted to what he often does on his annual vacation to the Florida Keys: putting puzzles together. He went to the local Walmart, bought a box of 12 puzzles and got busy. His few employees help while awaiting orders.

“Instead of sitting here watching the depressing news on TV, it just eases my mind. Helps me think,’’ Sonderfan said. “I’m doing the 300, 400 piece puzzles. Kind of prone to doing the sea critters, the animals. I did one cityscape. I’m doing one on New Orleans now.”

Sonderfan is constructing puzzles to occupy his time as Delaware is experiencing community spread of the virus. As of Friday morning, the state reported that 393 residents had contracted COVID-19 and 12 had died. Another 56 were hospitalized, public officials said.

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The practice of solving jigsaw puzzles peaked during the Great Depression. But with the region and most of the nation under stay-at-home orders and the economy in free fall, including Sonderfan’s two Shrimpy’s locations, the hobby is experiencing a resurgence.

Raymond Sonderfan is keeping busy with puzzles while his seafood restaurant fills a few takeout orders. (Courtesy of Ronald Zee)

That’s the assessment of Tim Southerst, who owns a combo puzzle and gourmet food establishment in Lewes. By virtue of having the food business that’s considered essential under Gov. Carney’s State of Emergency declaration, Southerst said he is grateful that he’s permitted to keep his doors open.

Demand at his store PUZZLES is much higher than normal for springtime in a beach town, Southerst said. He’s even getting orders to ship them to out-of-state customers because other stores across America that are allowed to remain open have sold out.

“We have been surprised at how many people have come through of all sorts of ages and types who have said, ‘I do puzzles regularly and thank goodness there’s an adequate supply of those still here in Lewes,’’’ Southerst said. “We have had others who maybe have said I haven’t done a puzzle in decades.”

Customers tell him they find solace in putting the pieces together while they “are stuck at home and going stir crazy,” he said.

Instead of being glued to their televisions, cell phones, laptops and other electronic devices, they “want something that is different but also which is arguably more wholesome, and more simplistic and also more focused.”

While many customers are parents looking a low-cost way to keep their children busy or do something as a family while staying inside, Southerst said “there’s been more growth around adult puzzles than there has been around kid puzzles.”

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“I think people without kids, whether singles or couples or partnerships, are just looking for something, regardless of the presence of kids, to do. And therefore I think that’s brought many more adult puzzlers, particularly either into puzzling for the first time or back into puzzling,” he said.

Southerst hopes interest will remain high after the health crisis passes, once they experience or recall the satisfaction in finding and locking that one difficult piece into place and then completing the project.

“There is a joy, there is a reward,’’ he said, “from doing something as simple and steeped in goodness as a jigsaw puzzle.”

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