Main Street

The cutting room at Stave Puzzles, in Norwich, Vt., is surprisingly quiet. Nine women clad in jeans or cords sit in front of saws that resemble sewing machines. They swivel sheets of special mahogany-veneered plywood through the saws, taking one full minute to shape each piece of the puzzles they're crafting. Vacuum tubes suck away the sawdust. A chickadee perches on a feeder just outside the window.

The serene scene belies the level of madness that grips the company's customers when they get their hands on a new puzzle. What makes Staves so special? Pieces cut like birds, squirrels, or the customer's name. Gaps left between pieces. Edges that are anything but square. And the Stave specialty: puzzles that fit together in more than one way. "We have a sadomasochistic relationship with our customers," says owner Steve Richardson.

NOT-SO-EASY PIECES: Longtime customers are hoarding Stave puzzles, which go for $95 to $15,000. The biggest-ticket item, a 2,700-piece pastoral scene that comes in five parts, has generated 92 orders so far.

Those customers include a hotelier who stocks his luxury bungalows with Staves and gives his guests a miniature puzzle to take home. Richardson estimates that 25% to 50% of his new business comes from that one hotel. Bill and Melinda Gates and Tom Peters also indulge. But the company's most beloved customer may have been an elderly gentleman who spent $1 million on Stave puzzles over two decades. Richardson actually boosted advertising just before the man's death, in 1994, to offset the anticipated drop in sales.

Richardson and a friend started with cheap cardboard jigsaws in 1974. They switched to fine wooden ones when they heard about a void left in the market by a retiring New York puzzle maker whose customers paid $300 per puzzle at a time when Richardson's mortgage payment was $274. "It was a ka-ching moment," he says.

Richardson bought out his partner for $1 and a saw in 1976. The byzantine designs he dreams up now garner $2 million a year. But just as he once dreaded losing that million-dollar customer, Richardson believes that Stave fans are anticipating his demise and stocking up on new puzzles. "They're looking at the actuarial tables," he jokes, "and saying, 'Stevarino isn't going to be around forever."


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