In the past year during the COVID-19 pandemic, people around the world including Vermonters have sought new ways to pass time indoors and puzzle-solving naturally became a hit.

Jigsaw puzzles helped silence the chaos of the outside world, allowing people to relax and focus on a lighthearted project that often yields beautiful images. Local stores carrying board games and puzzles saw sales rise as hooked customers searched for their next challenge.

Waterbury Roundabout recently caught up with one very dedicated local puzzle solver, a local puzzle designer, and a retailer who has incorporated more puzzles into their business.

Waterbury Center resident Larry Damon is a four-time Olympic Nordic skier turned musician who happened to catch the puzzle bug last year. In his younger days, he spent many hours outdoors training for ski competitions and road races, competing in the 1956-1968 Olympics as a cross-country skier and biathlete, later teaching Nordic skiing. In warmer months he ran marathons.

Today at age 87, Damon has been content to spend time indoors where he began assembling puzzles during the pandemic. Before long he’d completed several dozen and he says they number at least 50 now.

Running out of table space, Damon took to hanging the colorful mosaics on nearly every wall of his home, each held together by a frame of scotch tape. After completing a few puzzles early on, Damon set up a large table to work on in the living room. “My strategy is to start with the edges like everybody else,” he said, “but mostly I just spread them out and go from there.”

His wife Elizabeth began to dig up all the puzzles she could find just to keep up with him, and bit by bit their house became a DIY art gallery. Even the door to the front porch bears some of Damon’s work.

A cornet player in the band Z-Jaz, Damon said he doesn’t listen to music while solving puzzles. It’s serious business, he explained, and you wouldn’t want to get distracted.

Sharing that he soon may have less time for puzzles, Damon said he was thrilled that his band was booked for a gig at Charlie O’s in Montpelier Friday night. “It’s been a long time since we’ve performed,” he said, “but people like us, and we’re already scheduled for ten performances.”

Little vacations

Like Damon, many Vermonters took up new hobbies in 2020. Bicycles and exercise equipment saw a surge, but Katya d’Angelo, new owner of Bridgeside Books in downtown Waterbury, reported that board games and puzzles were also hot items. “I think people needed an escape this winter,” said d’Angelo. “So puzzles showing any destination but Vermont felt like a little vacation.”

Because they’re such universal gifts, the book store stocked up on puzzles for kids and adults and even expanded the board game selection. “We started doing rentals for people to test out games and people like that their rental fee turns into 30 days of store credit,” d’Angelo explained, hinting at a future swap event for folks to recycle and trade their puzzles. Last week, Bridgeside Books was getting some fresh paint and remodeling as Stowe Street gets a makeover. When it’s finished, a corner of the store will still be dedicated to plenty of puzzles and games.

Puzzles made to order

In Waterbury Center on Shaw Mansion Road, Kent Gardner runs Vermont Puzzle out of his home, designing, printing and cutting custom puzzles. Using his experience as a digital designer, for three years Gardner has made unique puzzles for individuals and families as well as designs for companies that help market their brand.

Gardner said he’s been busy over the past year. “The wholesale market for puzzles slowed down during the pandemic,” said Gardner, “but the jump in private sales easily made up for it.”

He was especially excited this year when Burton Snowboards asked him to make a series of three puzzles. “Burton has had many different logos over the years, so I suggested that we design a puzzle using a collage of Burton’s stickers and logos,” he said.

Along those lines, the Ben and Jerry’s gift shop at the Waterbury ice cream factory carries a similar design by Gardner — the puzzle image is a collection of lids of recognizable ice cream flavors from the iconic Vermont company.

With hundreds of puzzles under his belt, how does Gardner separate the good puzzles from the bad? “For custom puzzles, not everybody realizes that while a plain blue sky looks nice in a photo, it’s not much fun to put together,” he said. “You want details to provide hints, but in a personal photo with sentimental value that doesn’t matter so much.”

Warming weather and the dissipating pandemic may push people outside and away from their puzzle tables for awhile. But many will likely return to the simple pastime that provided solace during a difficult year.

Bridgeside is planning on it. Gardner appreciates it. And if ever the world seems to be falling to pieces again, Larry Damon will do his best to put them back together.

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