The press has been full of stories about the pending closure of 2,000 mostly small, rural post offices across the country. As Alan Robinson pointed out yesterday, however, the list of potential closures that accompanied the Washington Post story on the closures appeared to consist entirely of urban “stations and branches” rather than actual post offices.
So what’s the real story? Is the USPS closing small rural offices, or just eliminating redundant branches in over-served urban areas? As with all things postal, the answer is complicated. The first question that arises is “what’s the difference between a post office and a station or branch”? To the average postal customer, of course, there is no difference. To the postal service, there’s a big difference- it’s easier to close a station than to close a post office.
But if stations and branches are just satellites of nearby post offices, what’s the big deal? Consider the Boston District- until it was expanded to cover most of Eastern Massachusetts a few years ago, the old Boston District included most of the metro Boston area inside the Route 128 beltway- roughly a 10-15 mile radius. It served over a million customers, and operated dozens of post offices- at least as far as those customers were concerned. To the postal service however, there were only two post offices (and two postmasters) in the entire district- Boston and Cambridge. While it might say “United States Post Office” on the buildings in Quincy, Stoneham or Newton, the USPS considered them merely branches of the Boston Post Office.
How can that be? Why do cities with 100,000 or more residents have no “real” post office? The answer lies deep in postal history- the late 19th century to be exact- here’s what an official USPS history has to say:
Stations were established not only to keep pace with cities’ population growth but also when formerly independent Post Offices were discontinued and converted to stations of a larger nearby Post Office. Sometimes this was done to provide free mail delivery to customers, since initially residents of only the most populous cities were eligible for free delivery. On July 1, 1863, when free city delivery began, six Post Offices were discontinued and converted to stations of the New York Post Office.
Around the same time, six Post Offices were consolidated with the Philadelphia Post Office. In the 1870s, more than a dozen Boston-area Post Offices were discontinued and converted to stations “within delivery of that office.” Postmasters of the discontinued Post Offices were given the option of becoming station superintendents.
The reality, then, is that whether you’re served by a post office or by a more easily closed station or branch has nothing to do with current demographics and economics, and everything to do with Civil War era politics. Contrast the situation in Boston with the town of Uxbridge, 40 miles to the west. Uxbridge, with a population of just over 11,000, has three post offices, each with its own postmaster. Two of them, Linwood and North Uxbridge, are separated by 8/10ths of a mile. Similar examples exist all across the country. All of which simply shows that there really is no practical, meaningful distinction between a post office, a station, and a branch.
Bear that in mind when you read items like this one from the Prescott AZ Daily Courier:
Postal Service Spokeswoman Joanne Veto said they are looking to shutter 2,000 stations and branches this year.
Unlike post offices, Veto said the postal service is looking to close the stations and branches which don’t have letter carriers, process mail and usually only have a retail counter and some post office boxes.
The Linwood office mentioned above has no letter carriers, and “only a retail counter and some post office boxes”. But it’s a post office!
It’s worth noting that Ms Veto’s statement referred to closures planned for “this year”. I think it’s premature to suggest that the USPS is only planning to close urban “stations” rather than rural post offices. The list accompanying the Washington post story cited above has only 677 locations, not 2,000. It’s also somewhat dated, having been prepared in 2009, and leaked by Congressional staffers. The USPS is presumably working on an updated list of potential closures. But even if the USPS is only targeting “stations” this year, it’s clear that rural post offices are next. The Post yesterday quoted the PMG as saying
Remember the Maytag repair man? He used to have the loneliest job in the world. We probably have about 5,000 postmasters that have the loneliest job in the world.
Remember- only a post office, not a station, has a postmaster. “Lonely” one or two person offices exist only in rural areas. The PMG’s comment clearly suggests that, assuming Congress gives the USPS the go-ahead, 5,000 rural post offices are next to face the chopping block.