January 31, 2023
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Life & Culture

Ithaca antique shop owner finds passion in crafting crossword puzzles

Inside Pastimes Antiques, an antique shop located within the Dewitt Mall, knickknacks fill every spot in the room. In one section, jewelry boxes are filled with wristwatches, bracelets and rings. In another, Ithaca-themed cards and advertisements line a small bookshelf. And to the left of the cashier counter hangs a handmade sketch. At center, a man wears a cone-shaped wizard hat with a peculiar design: blank crossword puzzles set on a charcoal background. He holds a magic wand, crafting words to create crossword puzzle masterpieces.

This man is Pastimes’ owner and crossword puzzle constructor, Adam Perl. Perl, a 1967 Cornell University graduate, opened Pastimes in 1979. On the side, however, Perl constructs hundreds of crossword puzzles for countless occasions, including family gatherings, Bat Mitzvahs, anniversaries, holidays and retirement celebrations.

Perl said he gave his first-ever puzzle to his mother for her 70th birthday. With well-received critique from his family members, Perl then pursued his new passion.

In 1998, Perl wanted to try publishing a crossword puzzle for The New York Times. He said he called his friend Stephanie Vaughn, who had a piece of her work, “Sweet Talk,” published in the newspaper some years before.

“I said, ‘Stephanie, how do I go about submitting a puzzle to the Times?’” Perl said. “She said, ‘Call up The New York Times.’ And I said, ‘Yeah?’ And she said, ‘No, do it! Right now!’“

Perl said as soon as he called The New York Times he immediately got a general representative. Perl made a request to speak with Will Shortz, The New York Times’ crossword editor. Shortz has been The New York Times crossword editor since 1993. Shortz is also known as the puzzlemaster on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday. When Perl reached the puzzle maestro, he said he was so nervous he could barely collect his words.

“I asked for the crossword editor, and I was talking to Will Shortz within seconds,” Perl said. “And I was tongue-tied! He said, ‘Will Shortz,’ and I was like, ‘uh … uh. I’m a crossword puzzle maker.“

Shortz approved of Perl’s puzzle expertise, and The New York Times sent Perl a crossword puzzle style sheet. Perl said the sheet was complicated due to how many puzzle restrictions were needed. Restrictions included what words he could use, how many words he could use and the type of puzzle The New York Times was looking for. A few months later, Perl sent what he said he felt was his best puzzle at the time, and The New York Times published his crossword puzzle Dec. 28, 1998.

Since then, Perl has published 25 puzzles in The New York Times. Perl said his 26th puzzle is currently in the pipeline.

In 2014, Perl published “Tiny Town Teasers,” containing 60 crossword puzzles all based on small, 3×3 grids. All puzzles from “Tiny Town Teasers” came from “Tiny Town Times,” a blog that is written and maintained by Franklin Crawford. Crawford helped Perl publish his book.

Crawford first met Perl at the now-closed Cabbagetown Cafe in 1979. As their friendship grew throughout the years, Crawford watched Perl throughout his crossword construction journey. Crawford says Perl is a genuine gift to the Town and City of Ithaca.

“A lot of college towns will have a handful of people who stayed, and they just continue to grace their community with their talents,” Crawford said. “He’s a nice mixture of being creative and seriously community oriented. You can’t have enough of those people around.”

Perl gives back to the community through an annual crossword puzzle tournament. March 7 will be the Third Annual Finger Lakes Crossword Competition. All proceeds go toward Tompkins Learning Partners, which teaches adults and incarcerated youths English, math and computer literacy. Sharon Yntema, Perl’s colleague, participates in this event each year. She said she loves to watch everyone work together for such a charitable event.

“Adam creates three levels of puzzles for the event, and it’s great to be in a roomful of fellow solvers,” Yntema said. “Adam has a quirky sense of humor in his puzzles, so they are always a treat.”

Perl said he takes pride in this event, as it lets him put his puzzle-making to good use.

“It enabled me to turn my hobby and joy of making crosswords into an actual charity fundraiser that raises money for a wonderful cause,” Perl said.

Perl said he also gets a kick out of the event as it unfolds.

“This is a lot of fun for me,” Perl said. “Making the puzzles, watching people do them, hearing the groans, the sighs and the ‘ah-ha’s.”

Ultimately, Perl said he believes in pursuing dreams. Perl said his parents never pushed him to become a doctor or lawyer. He said they encouraged him to do what he loves.

“I started getting my Social Security four years ago already and I could retire,” Perl said. “But I don’t want to. There’s nothing I want to retire to. I’m doing what I want to do now. Follow your passion, do what you love and you’ll be happy.”

Luke Harbur can be reached at lharbur@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @lharbur