When Davy Rothbart assembled the first issue of Found magazine in his Chicago apartment in 2001, he had no inkling that his hobby would strike such a chord. Collecting found notes, love letters, cards, homework, to-do lists, doodles, signs, and more, Found #1 tapped into the public's surprisingly voracious appetite for secret peeks into other people's lives. The magazine's prominence grew rapidly: In addition to receiving an avalanche of press, Rothbart joined a touring version of NPR's This American Life in 2003, released a book of favorite finds in 2004, and created a spin-off, Dirty Found, for racier material last year. The magazine averages only one issue annually, but last month, Rothbart released another book, Found II, another typically engrossing, thoroughly entertaining read.
The A.V. Club: Does it seem like Found took off quickly?
Davy Rothbart: Yeah, it did… We had a party [for the first issue]—maybe 100 people came, and they each bought copies for five bucks. That left 700 copies in my apartment. That's a lot of boxes. It filled up the entire living room. Then I went on a trip the next day for six weeks. My roommate was grumbling, "You're going to leave the apartment like this?" Then I got back, and they were all gone. I was like, "Tim, what happened to 'em? Did you throw them out?" I thought he put them in the basement storage area, which always flooded. I figured they'd be ruined. He said, "No, they're gone." He said so many people were coming to the apartment to buy one, three, five copies for their friends, like night and day, that our neighbors called the police because they thought we were selling drugs. [Laughs.]
AVC: You started Found in Chicago. Is it a good place for finding stuff?
DR: Chicago is a great city for finding stuff. Just after that note that sparked the idea of doing Found magazine—"Mario, I hate you, page me later"—I made a flyer that had that on there, and it said, "Found magazine needs your help." I just went out to parties and bars, and I would tell people about it and ask them to send me stuff. I was surprised at how many people, when I showed it to them, were like, "Yeah! I've got found shit on my fridge!" I don't know if that's particular to Chicago—I think a lot of cities have that—but people here were so receptive.
AVC: You were working as a scalper then, right?
DR: Ostensibly I was "writing in Chicago," but really I was spending all my time scalping tickets. It was during the Jordan era, and it was lucrative… It cost almost more to print [Found] than it did when we sold them, but I had a lot of money saved up just from doing tickets, so I was able to print a bunch more. Really, a magazine with no ads is a bad business move. [Laughs.] But obviously it was something I thought would be really fun, so I was able to dump a bunch of that ticket-scalping money into printing more magazines. I think of Michael Jordan as the patron saint of Found magazine.
AVC: The new book has suicide notes. Where do you draw the line for content?
DR: Yeah, it's really intense. I was wondering if it would be in poor taste, but I guess I felt like all these things are a part of people's lives. I think life is like that… where the really tragic and the really mundane are intertwined all the time. You see some ripped-up love note on the ground, you don't know. Did the person that received it rip it up, or did the person that wrote it rip it up, like they never planned on giving it to them? Like the suicide notes, you wonder: Was this found because someone found it afterwards? Or maybe this person wrote this note—hopefully—and didn't go through with it. I think a lot of the notes, it's just a fragment of the story. It's up to you to piece together what's really happening… I think the tone is important, like being respectful. These are real people. With the notes, I think the simplest way to look at it is, "Oh, what an idiot," but I don't think there's one note in the Found book that I can't relate to in some way, that doesn't express some emotion or feeling that I've experienced before. Every one of them, I feel like I've been them. I'm not laughing at it—or if I am, it's laughing at myself.
AVC: Have you ever had someone recognize their stuff?
DR: The few times it's happened, they've been really cool about it—either they've been honored, or more often, totally mystified—like, "First of all, how did you get that? And why would anyone care about these little details of my love life?" I explained to them why it means so much to me, just that I can relate to it. I've probably written the same pitiful love note like a hundred times myself. This girl e-mailed recently about this note that was in Found #1. She's looking for advice from her friend about these two guys she's dating. It's a painful predicament, and she's trying to work it out. So she e-mailed and was like, "Hey that's mine." I e-mailed back and forth with her for a while, and she sent me a whole update: "Now I'm back with Kevin, but Chad's coming up this weekend. I still don't know what's going to happen." [Laughs.] It was amazing.