Meet January's Author Next Door: Jay Harrington

If fairies were to live anywhere, they would live along a stretch of the Cedar Cathedral Trail in the Grand Traverse Commons, called the Fairy Trails Project. Along these paths, tiny houses made of pine cones, shells, and rocks invite woodland fairies to inhabit their own little corners of Traverse City. The Fairy Trails Project was started by the husband and wife team behind the website, “Life and Whim.” They hope that through their website visitors will be inspired to spend more time outdoors.

Jay and Heather Harrington started Life and Whim as a side endeavor from their marketing firm, Harrington. The website serves as a creative outlet for both of them–Jay gets to write for himself instead of for clients and Heather gets to design unfiltered. On “Life and Whim,” the Harringtons with their three young daughters share their love of the outdoors, community, and each other.

Most recently they have published a picture book, The Magical Tale of the Fairy Trails, a fairy tale of how the fairy trails came about in Traverse City (say that twice fast!). They have generously dedicated a portion of the book revenues to the National Writers Series!
I had a chance to talk to Mr. Harrington about the process of creating the book Life and Whim. Here’s a little bit of the conversation we had. 

So this picture book is another one of your creative endeavors?

Yes, that’s right. We have a seven-year-old (she was six at the time), and we have twins who are now four and a half (three and a half when this all got started); and my oldest got a pop-up book at Christmas. 

It was all about fairies and different environments in which fairies and the houses they build and that kind of thing. Suddenly that got us talking about it and she was obsessed with this book. So we decided, why don’t we build something like this in Traverse City where we build a bunch of fairy houses? It’ll be along a hiking path and stuff. So we got on the phone and called the Minervini’s here at the Commons to ask them if they might be willing to allow us to build a Fairy Trail on one portion of one of the trail systems here. 

This past year we did an event in June for the opening day of Fairy Trails 2017 and we recruited twenty people from the community, some really talented artists and people who were into the idea. They built fairy houses, we put them out on the trails and it was a pretty cool day. 

So then we decided that it could be a fun idea to do a children’s book about this story. Not the actual story of the Fairy Trails but what would be a fun story to tell about Traverse City…about fairy trails? We wanted to tell a story of kids being creative and active in the outdoors and how they interact with this imaginative idea of fairies.

That’s how the book came about in terms of deciding to do it and then it was a process of “How do you write and illustrate children’s book?” That was something that we had never really tackled before. But with Heather being a designer and artist and myself being a writer, it wasn’t that difficult to figure out. 

It was something new, which was the fun part about it. 

Do you think you’re going to write more children’s picture books?

You know it’s funny you ask that because my daughter, my oldest, already has two or three ideas about new books. She’s a very creative kid and loves trying to create her own books and stories and stuff. 

So, yeah, we have we have a couple. One involves missing socks. I don’t know exactly what the story is but she keeps insisting, and I think there probably would be something good there, with a group of missing socks who can’t find their pair. 

And what’s her latest one? It’s all about the ornaments that we always stick at the back of the tree. Like, the tattered ugly ornaments that never see the front of the tree. And I think there’s a cute story there, too, … odds are we’ll probably do another story. 

So it seems that your kids are very engaged with Life and Whim..

They are. In many respects, they’ve inspired many of the ideas that we have and products that we’ve developed with the business. They help us with the business when we go do an event, or something  like that. They’re part of it for us. 
This is a side business but at the same time it’s an opportunity to build something as a family.

For instance, at the outdoor events we did this summer our 7-year-old set up her own “Maddie’s Magical Market” and she sold lemonade and cookies and she actually did pretty darn well this summer with her stands. I think it will teach them about business, about financial responsibility, about how to give back to your community, that sort of thing. So I think it’s definitely something that we’re using as a vehicle to try to teach those lessons to our kids. 

I think it’s good for them to see. I mean it’s not the same as it used to be, the whole idea of exposing young girls to a business. I don’t think that’s it’s as acute of a thing as it was maybe during the 1980s or whatever, because I think women are becoming more involved in entrepreneurship. But at the same time it’s not as prevalent as it should be. 

So I think it’s good, the fact that we have daughters and [are telling] them, “Go chase your dreams, start a business, do something different. You don’t need to conform to any standards anyone else is placing on you.”

 I think that those are good lessons that you can teach through building a family business like this. 

Life and Whim started when you moved to Traverse City, so why did you move up here? 

It wasn’t a job that brought us here or family or anything else. We just decided it was a place where we wanted to spend more time.

Part of it was wanting to pursue that outdoor lifestyle and that was a big part of that. And we thought it might be a great place to raise kids. And it was always the place we visited and loved.

 Traverse City was the place that offered the best opportunity to provide the things we were looking for. 

You’ve mentioned brand building a couple of times. Could you maybe expand on how you build your brand

The thing that we’re trying to really capture is a brand that’s outdoors, creative and family-friendly. So it’s a little bit of a slower, simpler brand.
I write blog posts that could be about anything but it all centers back to this idea of an outdoor active lifestyle or creative lifestyle: thinking differently about your life and pursuing your dreams. 

Our product line furthers that objective as well. It’s handmade, it’s made here in Michigan—northern Michigan when possible. It’s fun. It’s creative. It’s meant to be used in the outdoors primarily.

A big part of brand building for us is events we do. So whether it’s the opening of the Fairy Trails for the season or for the last couple of summers we’ve spearheaded what we’ve called the Traverse City street piano initiative where we painted and had pianos downtown. We’ve done outdoor scavenger hunts and all kinds of different things like that. 

All of these sort of fit within those buckets that we’re trying to build our brand around: creativity, family-friendly and the outdoors. 

What’s it like to work with your wife every day? Both for your main business and this passion project?

That’s a good question. I mean I won’t try to pretend that there are not challenges that arise from it that I think some people don’t have to deal with. But at the same time, there are benefits that I think can only arise from that. 

You have to draw clear lines. I mean we have we try to create roles and responsibilities and carve out areas of responsibility that each of us are involved with. We’re not always the best at that.

So with Life and Whim, with the growth of the brand would you like to see it extend past Michigan. 

What we’re selling is a sort of lifestyle and state of mind, right? There are people everywhere who are attracted to the idea of that lifestyle. So while they may not live in northern Michigan they want to live that lifestyle wherever they might be. So that’s the idea behind always having that message be forefront and using our geographic location as a strength. I’m not trying to hide from the fact that we operate out of a relatively small town in northern Michigan.

You mentioned teaching your daughters about work skills but also giving back to the community. So what are some ways specifically like Life and Whim has let you give back? 

I mean I think it’s building spaces like the fairy trail, something that people can come out and really enjoy. That gives us a lot of pleasure and enjoyment to see that. Adding something again creative and fun to the community and that that brings people joy. It’s something that brings us a lot of joy as well. 

And then through our business, for example, with the book sales of the children’s book we wrote, we’re donating a portion of the proceeds from every book sale to raising writers with National Writers Series. 

With everything else that we sell, a portion of proceeds from every sale goes to Challenge Mountain which is a place outside of Boyne City: they allow children and adults with disabilities to enjoy an outdoor activity like skiing. It’s something that really fits with what we are. 

I mean there’s the things we do to try to create spaces and places in the community that are fun for families and then we’re trying to directly give back in a way to financially benefit some of the organizations as well. 

It was great to chat with someone to whom community means so much. You can follow the Harringtons’ adventures at
Paul Oh is an aspiring writer who attends the Front Street Writers program, a collaborative of the Career Tech Center and National Writers Series.  He also works as an intern for the National Writers Series.