Love’s labors on behalf of things lost

Stephanie Holt stands in the Institution’s lost-and-found office, located on Massey Avenue near Bike Rent and the fire hall. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

Holt brings passion to reuniting missing items with their owners

Story by John Ford

“This is my domain,” Stephanie Holt says, beaming and spreading her arms as expansively as is possible in a 160-square-foot room crammed with thousands of items lost and so far unclaimed by Chautauquans and visitors.

“I love this job. It’s my passion.”

Holt is now in her third year as manager and sole employee of the Institution’s lost-and-found office, located across the hall from the bus drivers’ lounge in a steepled brick building tucked in between the fire hall and the Main Gate on Massey Avenue.

“In this job, I’m sometimes a forensic detective, sometimes a therapist,” Holt says. “I’m an occasional scavenger. I’m ruthlessly, relentlessly organized. No way I can survive in here otherwise.”

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She looks around her office. Sitting behind a battered flesh-colored metal desk, she surveys sturdy hard plastic wardrobes, small side tables loaded with dreck and treasure, a large hanging rack, many miscellaneous storage crates filled with everything from drinking mugs to baseball hats, an old three-drawer metal file cabinet and a wooden armoire converted to still more storage.

“I’ve got everything in here labeled, organized and filed,” Holt says. A frazzled lady walks in, careful not to knock anything off the glasses case table in front of Holt’s desk. It’s raining outside.

“I lost my umbrella yesterday,” the lady begins. “It’s distinctive. It has purple, white and black stripes and a company logo and my name on it. I think I may have left it at the Amphitheater. I hope someone turned it in.”

Holt is patient. Ever the detective, she asks a few questions, then opens a cabinet and offers an umbrella for inspection.

The visitor’s face lights up.

“That’s it!” she exclaims.

Holt carefully logs it out. The umbrella, clearly the woman’s, has no company logo and no name on it. The black stripe is indiscernible. But owner and property are reunited.

“Another satisfied customer,” Holt sighs.

“By 9:30 this morning,” she says, “I had 20 calls, and 15 Chautauquans or visitors had been reunited with their lost property. That’s a little busier than a normal day, but not too much. I do get swamped sometimes.”

Despite the occasionally overwhelming nature of her job, Holt, who works as a teacher’s assistant in the off-season, greatly prefers lost and found to her previous two years working on the Institution’s entrance gates.

“That can wear on you,” she comments. “You would absolutely be amazed at the stuff that happened on the gates, especially before they instituted the scanning system.”

An angular, older gentleman enters, somewhat tentatively. He is looking for a pair of glasses he misplaced earlier in the day. A lady in a broad-brimmed straw hat follows him in with a skeptical expression. Holt cannot help him with the eyeglasses, but his uncorrected eye has spotted her sale table, off to the left.

Soon he has an armful of books, hats, an umbrella, a shirt. The lady in the hat, now revealed as his wife, regards the developing situation with deepening skepticism. The man has his wallet out. Holt adds it all up.

“Three dollars,” she says. “Do you want a bag for your purchases?”

His wife speaks for the first time.

“You bought it; you carry it,” she says firmly.

Over her shoulder as the couple departs, she says, “It’ll all be in the trash by Labor Day.”

Holt has a consistent policy on unclaimed items.

“I hold them for one year and one day,” she explains. “If no one has claimed them, I put items on sale. The proceeds are all donated to the Chautauqua Fund. Lost and found contributed more than $1,000 last year, and I hope to do better in 2011.”

Summer interns arrive from the Bratton Theater and the Hall of Missions, delivering cardboard boxes full of items left behind by their visitors.

“I can also count on the Main Gate and Amphitheater staff to bring me lots of stuff,” Holt says.

She makes daily midday rounds of the bookstore, post office, library and Refectory to collect their leftovers.

“Here’s my favorite story,” Holt says. “When I first got to this office, I tried to find the owners of stuff that had been here for a while. I hadn’t instituted my one year and one day policy yet. Going through a drawer, I found a pink flowered spiral notebook — very fat. I read through some of it and discovered it was full of notes about life in a concentration camp. I made many, many calls before I found the owner of that notebook. She was living in another state.  She cried and cried when I told her I had found her book. It was full of research for a book she was writing.

“Another time, the crew at the Amphitheater found a bell tower necklace in a crack in one of the floorboards. They said it could have been there for years; it was stuck in a funny place and was very small and inconspicuous. The Bell Tower clock, though, was set at a peculiar time. I checked with local merchants. No luck. But sure enough, one day a lady came in and told me the time on the clock and her initials, and claimed the piece. You should have seen the joy on her face!”

“I guess the weirdest thing ever turned in was a peculiar-looking, longish screw,” Holt continues. “One of the bus drivers brought it in. I have to say, I thought, Whew! What is he thinking? But you know what? The next morning, a young boy came in looking for it. Turned out that screw fastened his kickstand to the frame of his bicycle.”

Here’s a partial inventory of items currently in the lost-and-found office: kids’ toys, jewelry, watches, glasses and glasses cases, handheld fans, unopened merchandise in bags without sales slips, cell phones, Chautauqua logo seat cushions, cameras, small electronics, bicycle locks, helmets and other paraphernalia, crafts and needlework accessories, backpacks, totes, dishware, empty purses, various items of clothing, baseball hats, shoes, beach towels, the odd hearing aid.

“Most of these items are not for sale yet,” Holt cautions. “This is not a substitute for your local Salvation Army store. But if you’ve lost something, there’s a reasonable chance it’s here.”

A visitor prepares to leave.

“Hold on,” the voluble Holt urges. “Listen to this: I actually found my own husband’s wedding band not long ago. He lost it in 2005; it must have gotten lost in a move. But I found it!”

Holt was beaming.

The Chautauqua lost and found office is open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon and from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. The phone number is 716-357-6314, and the email is