When he was a kid, Davy Rothbart visited a “dinosaur museum”–Ann Arbor’s Exhibit Museum of Natural History–and came across a curious anthropological specimen: a piece of notebook paper saturated with ink. “You know if you’re really in love with someone in junior high, you write their name so much that–well, I never did this, but this kid I knew did–he wrote this girl’s name so many times that the sheet of paper was black….This piece of paper I found–it was full of question marks. I was eight, and I was like, yeah, exactly!”

That crude scrap of existential angst marked the beginning of Rothbart’s enduring interest in the stories of strangers. Periodically moored in Chicago but prone to cross-country drives and extended sojourns in other cities, Rothbart, 26, is a full-time documentarian. Since graduating five years ago from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, he’s never had a day job. Rather, he’s made slide shows, a short film, and audio documentaries–one of which aired earlier this year on This American Life–on subjects ranging from pickup basketball to the quarrels between his Chicago neighbors. (He’s also scalped tickets for ten years; the Jordan Bulls era was very good to him.) For the last five months, his interest in other people’s lives has been channeled into Found magazine–a gallery of written ephemera.

Rothbart has collected found writing–grocery lists, love letters, homework, doodles, poetry on napkins–for years. Last May, on the road between one small town and another, he got the inspiration for Found: Why not solicit found items from people all over the country, and publish them as a magazine? He made up some flyers and scattered them through parking lots nationwide and passed them out to fans leaving a Kansas City Royals game. “At first I didn’t hear anything,” he says, “and then I did. People sent stuff from as far away as Hawaii and Bangladesh.”

About a year later Found #1 was completed. Most of the contents were contributed by Rothbart and a few friends, but he believes this bodes well for the zine’s future: “If a few of us could find all this great stuff,” he says, “I like to think how much amazing stuff we could gather once the magazine goes out to a lot of people and we have a team of many thousands watching the ground!”

Rothbart wanted the 1,000 covers to each feature a different found note or image, so he threw several marathon decorating parties at his Ukrainian Village apartment and at his parents’ house in Ann Arbor. He supplied the guests with tape, scissors, liquor, pizza, pretzel rods–and a trove of found notes and photos. “I couldn’t control the chaos of it,” he says. “A lot of stuff ended up on covers that was only found in that they found it on my floor!”

Found invites readers to peek into the lives of strangers. In its pages, they spell (and misspell) out their thwarted ambitions and secret longings; their excuses, threats, and foibles. The pieces are by turns absurd, hilarious, inscrutable, and sad.

An E-mail from an excitable teenage girl–“tomorrow is the first day of my last semester of high school. how strange is that?!! ahhhh!!!”–is followed by a short story written in block lettering on Michigan Department of Corrections stationery. Pages from a travel diary recount a Hawaiian vacation spent eating cheeseburgers and watching TV in a hotel room. The next page is taken up by an impenetrable swarm of scribbled words.

The letters often reveal some yearning on the part of the writer, some attempt to connect with another in anger, compassion, or flirtation. Reading them brings the sting of the familiar, “a moment of great recognition,” as Rothbart puts it. “When you glimpse this humanness in a total stranger–partly because they are a total stranger and they could be anyone–I think it’s easy to feel a deep sense of connection with all humans.”

Rothbart isn’t the first person to celebrate found writing–a woman named Abby Bridge published a zine called Other People’s Mail for several years in the mid-90s–but the attention he’s received is surprising. In five months’ time, the sole issue of Found has hit the radar of national publications such as GQ, Spin, and USA Weekend. In July, Rothbart appeared on NPR’s On the Media. Recently, an editor from Forbes ASAP wrote him requesting two copies of the magazine, which has a cover price of $5. He enclosed a check for $100.

“The magazine seems to be bringing joy to people and helping them to feel the world around them,” Rothbart says. He thinks that most fans have become aware of Found through its Web site (www.foundmagazine.com); he says he’s received about 1,000 E-mails since June. The original press run of 1,000 sold out in August; to meet demand, Rothbart has printed another 5,000. The second edition includes seven new pages of material.

Currently Rothbart is editing a documentary film, wrapping up a video piece for a proposed This American Life television show, and working on two writing projects–a biography of a Vietnam vet and a novel. This November and December, he’s on the road again, visiting bookstores, cafes, and nightclubs in 18 cities as part of the “Found tour”–he’ll appear at Quimby’s Bookstore, 1854 W. North, this Friday at 8 PM. Each event will include readings from found notes and letters, giveaways (“somebody somewhere is gonna get the skateboard I found in Albuquerque”), and copies of Found #1 for sale. People are encouraged to bring in their own finds. “I definitely want to stress the interactive part of it,” he says. It’s “show-and-tell for grown-ups.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.