The pieces came together perfectly for a local artist and the Crystal couple who own a jigsaw puzzle company.

Four years ago, Tony and Candace Nelson were donating boxes of puzzles from their company, PuzzleTwist, for a fundraiser at Hopkins’ Meadowbrook Elementary. There, they met Adam Turman, a Twin Cities-based illustrator, who was donating some of his original prints.

The Nelsons had been collaborating with other local artists to produce puzzles, so “it made sense that we would work together,” Turman said.

Since then, Turman and the Nelsons have collaborated on six different puzzles, including “Moon Over Minneapolis,” a stacked cityscape of downtown, “Boundary Waters Canoe Area,” a peaceful campsite at sunset, and “MN Abbey Road,” with the Hamm’s beer bear, Paul Bunyan, Pillsbury Doughboy and the State Fair mascot walking across the Stone Arch Bridge.

Now the PuzzleTwist is proving to be a boon to Turman and other local artists as well as small businesses that have been shaken by the coronavirus outbreak.

Many of the specialty retailers and mom-and-pop shops that sell the puzzles are having to pivot to online-only sales. And the out-of-state manufacturing plant where the puzzles are printed was deemed nonessential, and is operating at only 40% capacity.

But there’s an unprecedented upswing in demand for puzzles from families looking to kill time while forced to stay home.

Ravensburger, the world’s largest puzzle retailer, reportedly saw recent sales jump 370%. PuzzleTwist is experiencing the surge in sales caused by COVID-19 on a smaller scale.

“April sales are higher than December sales of last year. It’s kind of crazy,” Tony Nelson said. “It’s nice we’re able to provide a product to people looking for an escape from what’s going on with COVID and the stay-at-home order and trying to help people get through these tough times.”

PuzzleTwist, which the Nelsons started a decade ago, is a small player in the puzzle industry, primarily selling throughout the Midwest. Its puzzles depict beloved local spots — from Duluth’s Canal Park to the cityscapes of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Minnesota State Fair.

The twist in the name comes from the fact that the completed puzzles are slightly different from the image on the boxes, which adds a challenge when assembling them.

Puzzle power

Of its 60 signature puzzles, PuzzleTwist has only about a dozen still available. Luckily, the Nelsons have stockpiles of puzzles in their garage, as well as a warehouse in Brooklyn Center. They’re using those stockpiles to handle the spike in online sales through their website (puzzletwist.com) and to help other retailers.

“We’ve now depleted our inventory and I’m having a lot of tough discussions with specialty retailers hanging on by a thread and needing something to sell to stay alive,” Nelson said. “We want them to survive because at the end of the day they are the ones that are going to be selling our products when this is over.”

Alfresco Casual Living in downtown Stillwater is one of those retailers.

While the Main Street store is closed, it’s offering pickup and delivery of one of its hottest sellers: PuzzleTwist puzzles.

“Word spread quickly around town that I had puzzles,” said store owner Meg Brownson. “All of a sudden I felt like I became the Puzzle Lady of Stillwater.”

Brownson said she’s had customers coming back for more puzzles after they finish a 500- or 1,000-piece jigsaw. Some are buying seven boxes at a time to send them to loved ones stuck at home. She’s also put together care packages for customers, all of which include a puzzle.

Paul Zenisek said PuzzleTwist sales are keeping the lights on for his small south Minneapolis store, Heroic Goods and Games, which opened about three years ago.

“We sold twice as many puzzles in April than we did in the first three years,” he said.

While he’s run out of other merchandise to sell with board game companies closed or orders backlogged for weeks, “having PuzzleTwist access has been the safety net,” he said.

‘This little perfect thing’

Turman also is seeing an uptick in puzzle sales during the pandemic. Though fewer people are buying the prints and illustrations he sells primarily through his website (adamturman.com), the puzzles he made with the Nelsons are proving popular.

“It’s one product that I have here that brings families together,” he said. “It’s this little perfect thing when a lot of other chaos is happening.”

Turman said he’s grateful that PuzzleTwist is keeping small businesses and local artists like him at the front.

“I‘m just really thankful that we even have puzzles, that we’ve even had the opportunity to have something like this when … who could have predicted it?” he said of COVID-19. “Thank goodness that Tony and Candace are in my life.”