News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

February 1, 2014

EDITORIAL: Nice reprieve for small towns

Village Post Office plan gets services closer to home

TERRE HAUTE — As billions of dollars in financial pressures have tightened a near-death grip on what we used to simply call the post office, many in our smaller towns have begun to see a loss of mail services.

Some towns have already lost their post offices, and more probably will close.

Many remaining post offices have had their business hours cut in ways that, at least in terms of convenience, have reduced services to customers.

No longer can one run to the small-town post office during normal business hours, without looking at the clock, to mail a letter, buy a stamp, get a money order or send a package. If you do, you might find a “Sorry, closed” sign and a locked door.

That has been complicated all across the country, and certainly in the Wabash Valley, by the consolidation of mail processing centers and the use of bigger mail hubs in central cities such as Indianapolis. Jobs have been lost in cities such as Terre Haute, millions of dollars saved for sure, but from services lost.

Into that vacuum has developed a rather nice piece of business — and, really, of Americana. It’s nothing perhaps to jump up and down about, but it is a welcome development.

It’s called the Village Post Office, VPO for short. What is probably the nation’s newest VPO opened Tuesday in Clay City, a town of 861 in southern Clay County.

As you read in the Tribune-Star last week, Russ and Lori Miller have expanded their IGA store in town to now handle postal services. The U.S. Postal Service office in Clay City is still open, but its hours are expected to be cut to six a day beginning in October.

Cutting the town’s post office hours and introducing VPOs, USPS spokeswoman Mary Dando said, “is a strategy to save small post offices” while cutting costs.

The Millers’ grocery is prime as a VPO site because it is a well-established business and can offer many more hours than the traditional post office: the grocery is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week. The store will get a modest income from the postal service to offer mail products and also will gain some foot traffic that will ring the cash register a bit more. But Russ Miller told our Sue Loughlin that it’s basically a community service. “We try as much as possible to be community-oriented,” he said.

The VPO concept must be an especially good fit for Indiana towns, maybe because of widespread community orientation — or at least we’d like to think that. By our count on the USPS website, there are 59 VPOs in Indiana, compared with only seven in Illinois. Other Wabash Valley towns having VPOs are Dugger (about which we wrote a few months ago), Lyons, Worthington, Kingman and Spencer.

The VPO is still a new idea. The first one was in Malone, Wash., a Grays Harbor town of a few hundred people about 65 miles from Seattle. Red’s Hop N’ Market is home to that VPO, a mini-mart where postal services are in the mix with lottery tickets, fishing bait, milk, donuts, soft drinks and beer. It opened in Malone in August 2011 — the day after the town’s post office closed.

In ways, the VPO is a throwback to a few decades ago when the general store also served as the branch post office, and where the postmaster or postmistress also wore the apron of the meatcutter or the work shirt of the guy pumping gas.

Before nostalgia overwhelms us, we don’t mean to suggest that the VPO is necessarily better than the full-service post office — for instance the VPO’s services are limited to the real basics such as buying stamps or getting a mailing box.

But those are not to be dismissed as inconsequential, of course. And the VPO maintains a level of mail service in towns that otherwise might lose all services. And it puts those services in the hands of community-minded business people, like the Millers. Those things are not at all bad, especially given the alternative.

So, hail the Village Post Office where the shopping list is bread, milk, eggs, soda — and stamps.

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