Saying Goodbye to the P.O.
Yesterday I walked into my local post office to mail a few boxes of books. Cathy, our postmaster, looked exhausted.
“Is it happening?”
“Looks like it.”
For years now, our beloved West Fulton Post Office has been a tenuous neighbor. West Fulton was once a bustling community. Less than 100 years ago, it was called Sapbush Hollow, home to two hotels, a community theater, and a few shops. Eventually we were annexed into the next town, and we lost our name, too. The hotels no longer exist; nor do the shops. But we still had our community identity, even if the name was changed. And we still had our post office.
Then Cathy received official word that we are “being studied for closure,” along with 3,653 other post offices across the country (many in rural communities like ours), as part of a major restructuring of the cash-strapped U.S. Postal service. Rumor has it that “being studied for closure” is a joke—that it simply means your post office is done.
“I feel like I’m losing a member of my family,” Cathy said. She started to cry. So did I.
There are plenty of arguments in favor of the closure. The post office had an $8.5 billion shortfall last year. Email has replaced first class letters. The USPS would argue these small community post offices aren’t efficient. They don’t make economic sense.
And maybe they don’t, so long as the definition of “economic sense” is interpreted merely as an efficient transaction of U.S. currency. “Economics,” however, comes from the Greek word, oikonomia, referring to the management of the household, or household affairs. And in that respect, our small community post offices are among the most efficient economic institutions I know of.
Any of us who have the good fortune to use a post office that is not in the center of a business hub knows that their value far exceeds the transactions in the register. The customer service is often fantastic, and they are far easier to use than the urban postal centers or the USPS website.
But there’s more to it than that.
With every member of our hamlet having daily transactions at this office, it is the community center. The post office is where we go to locate or report a lost pet, to discuss books and newspaper articles, to announce a garage sale, to spread the word if someone in the community is in need of help. It is a place to debate local politics, to find out about road conditions from anyone who’s been to town, to announce a pancake breakfast, to swap zucchini recipes or information about the latest vegetable blight.
I grew up with the West Fulton Post Office as a key fixture in my social circle. Two and a half miles from my family’s farm, I’d ride my bike there to secretly meet up with boyfriends, or to send post-marked break-up letters. Years later, after meeting my future husband, I proudly introduced Bob to our local P.O., persuading him that it was one of the best justifications for moving from Maine to West Fulton, New York.
No mail delivery is available on the road where we now live, but two weeks after Bob and I bought our house and he lost his job, vegetables and kind notes were brought to our doorstep by neighbors, one of the courtesies of post office gossip. That first Christmas we shared together—with a new mortgage and no job—Mary Ann, the postmaster at that time, presented us with our very first tree ornament, taken from her own Christmas tree, to wish us luck and encourage us to stay in our community.
The first chickens my mom and dad raised out on pasture came across that postal counter, inaugurating our family farm’s transition into a viable, community-centered business. When Bob and I began self-publishing our books and shipping them through the post office, Mary Ann would announce to all the neighbors each book release, then proudly stamp each package with her own personal mark: “West Fulton PO: Thanks for doing business in the middle of nowhere!” Recognizing the post office’s status as the gathering spot, Mary Ann even brought in a coffee pot and kept it percolating all day long for anyone who wanted to sit for a while.
When Mary Ann retired and Cathy came to join us, she also quickly took up an honored place in the community. She kept track of the credit cards Bob and I would leave behind in our flutter of chaos trying to mail out books and deal with newborns, then toddlers, then small children. She taught Saoirse how to address, stamp, and mail her first letter, and was the first person with whom our young daughters began conducting money transactions. She walks the roads with her camera during her lunch hour, and shares pictures of the wildlife she sees. When Bob and I sold our last car, we didn’t need to bother with the Want Ad Digest or Craisglist. We went to the post office, and the car was sold in less than a week. The West Fulton post office has delivered us homes for stray cats, honey and meat customers, readers, gifts, and many friends. True to the original meaning of the word, it has been critical to our household economy, and to that of our neighbors.
And now, we are being studied for closure. The postal service argues that we can go online to print postage, that there are other post offices nearby. Heck, UPS says they’ll even come right to my door to pick up packages, saving me the drive. But this is about something more important than efficiency. The West Fulton P.O. was ours.
We’ve lost our community name. We’ve lost our hotels, our shops, and our community theater. In the absence of these historical features, we’ve loved our post office and we’ve supported it as best we could. But despite our wishes, it will likely be taken away, too. In West Fulton—and in many other places that have long supported our small post offices now slated for closure—we have relished our certified status as a community by way of an official postmark. We will now have to focus on other ways to adhere without our official community stamps. But until the day the final decision is made, please keep supporting them. And thanks for doing business in the middle of nowhere.
Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of Grassfedcooking.com and RadicalHomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.
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