Ever wondered what to do with that love note you discovered in an old Goodwill coat? Those ancient family vacation pictures you uncovered at a garage sale? Here’s a thought: Publish them.

Found Magazine is entirely made up of its namesake: random items readers find, with explanations of how they came across them. The resulting read is sweet, embarrassing, funny, perplexing–and engrossing.

Take the note addressed to Mario, found under a windshield wiper blade: “You said you had to work then whys your car HERE at HER place?? You’re a fucking LIAR … I fucking hate you Amber PS Page me later.” Or a note found attached to a deflated red balloon: “I wish I wont flunk sixth grade.”

Almost overnight, a zine first published in a Chicago copy shop, now out of Ann Arbor, Mich., became a nationally distributed publication. Why? Found’s assembled notes and pictures engage our fundamental curiosity about other people’s lives. Bad spellings and garbled thoughts reveal the fragmented ways we try to communicate with one another.

Each item’s a glimpse into a stranger’s life. Sometimes the view is eerily familiar.

Editor Davy Rothbart’s 45-city tour of U.S. and Canadian bookstores–and rock clubs–brings him to the area this week.

When Found first came out, it was a big sensation.

At first I was just going to make 50 copies, but then my friend said we should make 800. They were gone pretty quickly. Then we printed 3,000, then 5,000, and then 5,000 more.

How many copies of that issue have sold so far?

Probably 16,000.

That must have been more than you ever expected.

Totally. It’s stunned me how people have responded to it. I’ve learned that what I thought was just my own little personal hobby is something lots of people have been doing on their own for a long time.

I’ve noticed the magazine’s masthead is ballooning. It looks like dozens of people put it together.

I think of the magazine as a collective effort of thousands of people, in all these different cities, who have helped spread the word about the project.

Is that what inspired the tour?

Definitely. It’s a chance to meet people I’ve been trading e-mail with, who’ve been sending in great finds. I basically get up there with a stack of finds people have been sending in and I read them. I’m not an incredibly dynamic performer, but people really seem to enjoy and respond to someone giving voice to them.

In Issue No. 2 you mentioned that some people who send in finds have certain occupations, like teachers and janitors.

Librarians and people at used bookstores definitely come across all kinds of stuff. Dave [Hewitt, an interviewee who works at a used bookstore] especially had a wild range of stuff: all things that had been used as bookmarks. In Baltimore, a whole bunch of janitors came to an event; they all work together at this plant. And three cops in uniform came, which sort of surprised me. I don’t for some reason give cops credit for being curious-minded folks in the same way, but they were. They’re always driving around at night in weird areas. They had all sorts of stuff.

Did you see Amelie? The guy’s photo album in it made me think of Found.

I love that movie. There’s the box she finds in the bathroom that sets off her whole quest. I’m going to do an interview with the director for Issue 3. He’s a longtime lover of found stuff and has quite a collection himself. Maybe we’ll get to use some of it.

Reading these letters is really fascinating, but it makes me a little paranoid about what I put in the trash. Do you ever hear back from people whose letters and pictures are in the magazine?

Yeah. It’s funny because when I first started putting the magazine together, it never occurred to me that that could happen. But, of course, with more people seeing the magazine, that has happened a few times.

I thought people would be kind of pissed off, but generally the response has been more like surprise. In Issue 1, there was this e-mail a girl sent her friend about how she broke up with one guy, is going out with this other guy and wants to borrow her friend’s ID.

She e-mailed us. She was not angry. She felt a little bit honored but mostly just mystified: Why would so many people care about the machinations of her love life? I explained that people read and they have some flicker of recognition, about being in a relationship themselves and being a little bit confused about it. Then she e-mailed me with a whole update of everything that’s happened.

The idea is definitely not to expose anyone or get anyone in trouble. In the new issue, we were much more careful keeping things anonymous because I want to respect people’s privacy.

It’s interesting how Found has taken off. It has this DIY spirit to it; it’s very humanizing. None of the things in it would really fit into any categories–if you were trying to file them, you wouldn’t know where to put them–which is totally different from most media.

I wonder too, why are so many people enjoying this? Why do they get into it? I think it comes down to a curiosity about people.

It’s part of a story. In a way, having part of a story is more immediately gripping than the full story, because it’s a mystery and there are parts of the story you’ve got to solve. You’ve got to supply some of the story yourself when pieces are missing. It’s an imaginative process.

In a way, having part of the story is more honest than thinking that you have the whole story.

That’s what I love. When you have the full story, it’s easier to forget about it; there’s nothing nagging at you. This is totally more honest because it’s the way real-life stories are: They’re unfinished and rumpled and ragged and they don’t really have clean endings. When people tie things neatly in a bow, it’s easy to digest it and move on.

Some of these things just sort of haunt me, you know? I’m still at some level trying to figure them out, trying to imagine endings or directions where things might have gone. The people in them really stick with me. I find myself wondering, thinking about them all the time.

How are the bookstore events different from the events at rock clubs?

They’re pretty much the same. It’s nice when people are drinking because they’re rowdier; a little less shy about laughing or really getting into it.

People bring stuff to the events and give it to me afterward. I’ve been collecting a lot this trip. A handwritten poem a woman gave me in Providence: “Roses are red, violets are blue, I’m in love, but not with you.” In Madison, Wisc., this woman gave me 10 pages from the journal of a teenage girl named Nadine. It was from November 1963, so it followed JFK’s assassination on Nov. 22. The next few days as she talks about it she’s fairly upset, but she’s also dropping little things about her life, like “I babysat for the kid next door. Boy, that baby’s a brat.”

Will that be in the next issue?

I’m sure it will. EndBlock