In 1639, America's first post office was established. Housed inside Fairbank's Tavern at the end of Boston's Long Wharf, it was a convenient spot for ships coming into or taking leave of the colonies. For insuring that all mail dropped off somehow found its way to its recipient, the tavern keeper, Richard Fairbanks, was paid a penny a letter. In those early days the delivery system was simple: received mail was dumped in a basket or tossed on a table, and if you were expecting a letter you went through all that was there to find yours. Mail to be sent out? Another basket, we imagine, another table.
Needless to say, many letters went astray.
New York City's first post office opened in a coffeehouse in 1642. South Carolina's began in a coffee house as well. These new post offices were gathering places, at the heart of colonial, and democratic, life. When it became clear that the Crown's Post was opening mail, pawing through packages and refusing to deliver rebellious newspapers, the link between democracy, a free press, and a secure postal service became clear. In 1792, when Congress enacted the Post Office Act, ensuring the sanctity of the mails and establishing cheap newspaper rates, it codified this link, recognizing the post office as the purveyor of news and as such, a means of binding together a young nation.
This month, 2000 post offices are slated for closure by the United States Postal Service due to increasing costs. The Postal Service loses 23 million dollars a day. As we all know from our own personal use, the internet has decimated demand for The Post Offices' services. 16,000 more post office closings are up for review.
But what is lost by shutting the brick and mortar buildings, the descendants of the taverns and the coffeehouses of the past?
People. People in a room sharing news. People passing stories. Slow news. Inexact news. Inefficient news. The trade-off has always been there. Even as it was hailed as a boon, when Rural Free Delivery arrived, extending the Post Office's reach into the countryside, one farmer observed at the turn of the twentieth century: "It ain't so much news from somewhere else that most 'em want. It's the news from right around town here. And how are you going to get that I'd like to know, if you stay up on the farm all the time and never come down to the post office to see somebody and talk things over?"
The farmer's image of the post office as the center of a town, as its hub, lies at the heart of my novel, The Postmistress. The post office building is the physical gathering spot for a community, and thus makes a community. Here in Washington, DC, where I live, the post office creates a neighborhood in our corner of the city. It's where I overhear what's happening. It's a place to swap gossip with people I don't know. Will the city plow the alleys this time around? Will the small grocery store down the block stay afloat? Are the daffodils planted by the side of the movie theatre dying, someone asked the line of us waiting packages in hand, or just tired? It's not major news, certainly, but local news--what one person said to another, standing beside them, in an age when the transmission of news has grown increasingly disembodied.
It's not just the news of a town one gets in a post office, it might be the secrets as well. If you're a child, it might be the thrill of walking in under the gaze of America's Most Wanted, or the smell of old wood and linoleum, the sight of those gun metal-boxes ranged floor to ceiling against one wall. And of course, when you wander into a post office, there is always the chance of getting a letter. To get a letter, to see the slant of an envelope crosshatching the inside of your mailbox, and to reach in and pull it out, not knowing who it is from or where--that is the irreplaceable thrill of actual, physical pieces of mail.
For if small post offices are endangered species, the letter has already gone the way of the dinosaur -- and they are twinned losses. When you hold a letter in your hand, you hold the letter writer too. Written by one person to another, the idiosyncrasies of a voice, of someone's handwriting, all remain there on the page. There is the news on the page, and then there is the page itself. In a letter there lies a story beneath the words --the choice of the stationery, the slant of the handwriting to the left or the right, the place the pen gave out, the coffee stain. And, holding a letter, reading a letter--the reader and the writer are joined by a sheet of paper, held by both pairs of hands.
There is no question that the internet has created a place for people to gather, to collect and exchange news; the revolts in the Middle East are the physical expression of this. But, like bookstores and libraries, also brick and mortar gathering points around the written word, also vanishing, what is lost are the serendipities of people, the bright fantastic spectacle of human beings...well, being. For the surprise of bumping into a neighbor, or of standing in line when a young man pulls a letter out of his mailbox, turns around to the lobby and whoops--(was it a love letter? A college acceptance? A job? Who knows? We are all of us, suddenly smiling, imagining answers)--the surprise of those moments of shared humanity, in a communal space, joined by the borders of your neighborhood, can not be replaced.
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