For some communities, post office could disappear

Edward Tarter, stopping in at the Harford Road post office in Baltimore, was aghast to hear Wednesday that it might shut down.

He understands that the U.S. Postal Service — which is eyeing one in 10 of its locations nationwide for possible closure — is hurting financially. He knows that people are increasingly doing online the business they used to conduct by mail.

"But still, you need face to face every once in a while," said Tarter, 64, who lives in nearby Morgan Park. "If they close this down, it's going to do irreparable damage to this community."

In urban and rural communities alike, residents just getting wind of the Postal Service's new potential closure list tried to imagine their neighborhood without a traditional post office. Some see it as an inconvenience, meaning a slightly longer drive to the next-closest location. Others view it as a more fundamental loss — a vanished community gathering spot and a chipping away at the identity of the place they call home.

Residents of remote Smith Island, meanwhile, are facing the possibility of an hourlong trek across the Chesapeake Bay to the nearest post office. Both of the island's post offices are on the list — and it's a long trip by boat to Crisfield.

"I hate to think about it," said Jennings Evans, 80, who has lived on Smith Island all his life. "It'd be a big loss to us."

The Postal Service says its nearly 32,000 post offices represent the largest retail network in the nation. It is considering 3,700 for closure, most in rural areas.

Forty-one post offices on the list are in Maryland, including one at Towson Town Center and eight of Baltimore's 35 post offices. Many others are on the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland.

Postal Service officials said the list includes post offices that have too little foot traffic or are near other locations. But they emphasized Wednesday that this is not the final word and that a decision is at least several months away.

The agency will hold public meetings, send out surveys and ask for written comments, said Freda Sauter, spokeswoman for the Postal Service's Baltimore district, which includes most of Maryland. Residents and businesses will get two months' notice if their post office is ultimately slated for closing and will have a chance to appeal to the Postal Regulatory Commission.

Communities that do lose their post offices would not lose their ZIP codes. Some neighborhoods could gain a post office-like alternative that would offer the most popular services, the Postal Service said.

The Postal Service is working with businesses to launch "Village Post Offices" in grocery stores and other retail locations, carved-out spots where customers could buy stamps, mail flat-rate packages and possibly rent post office boxes. The businesses would staff the centers themselves — potentially around the clock in retail outlets that never close — and take a share of the revenue. Numerous companies have expressed interest, Sauter said.

"Everything's changing," she said. "We have to change along with it."

The Postal Service is not planning to lay off employees, Sauter said. Workers will be reassigned if their post office closes, and if the Postal Service owns the building, it will try to sell it.

The Hamilton post office, on Harford Road in Northeast Baltimore, saw a steady stream of customers Wednesday morning. The small parking lot was full before the office opened at 10 a.m., and spaces that were vacated were quickly filled. But a line rarely formed in the lobby.

Hours there were shortened about a year ago because of insufficient foot traffic, the Postal Service said. The Hamilton post office closes from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. and shuts for the day at 4 p.m.

The lack of a line appeals to customers. Some live near enough to walk, and they like that, too. Amber Holcomb, 25, strolls over frequently from her Lauraville home to buy stamps, mail packages and — sometimes — drop off letters just to get out of the house with her infant son and 3-year-old daughter. The thought of the post office closing saddens her.

"I don't know where we would go," Holcomb said.

Hanna Owens, 24, visits often to mail packages being sent overseas. Her family may soon need to do the same — she's about to move to France — and would miss the convenient Hamilton location. It's a minute from their house.

"You have to come to a post office to get a customs slip and the correct postage," Owens said.

Nicole Selhorst, co-owner of the Red Canoe Bookstore Cafe, likes to walk the half-mile to the Hamilton post office on nice days. The businesswoman in her thinks the idea of opening outposts in retail spots is brilliant and a way to minimize the damage from closings. But she hopes very much that Hamilton will not lose its stand-alone location.

She worries about the building sitting empty. And she's dismayed by what she sees as the unraveling of the fabric that constitutes a community.

"The post office is a really, really important part of the small-town feel that you get in a neighborhood," Selhorst said. "Slowly, slowly, we're losing all the things that make us feel in touch with our neighbors."

On Smith Island, in Somerset County, the post offices are the transmitters of local news. People find out who's sick, who's on the mend and what's going on when they stop in, said Evans, who lives in Ewell.

But with only about 270 people on Smith Island, there aren't many potential customers. One of the three towns, Rhodes Point, lost its post office years ago. Ewell and Tylerton have kept theirs because they are on separate islands. The boat ride from one to the other takes about 20 minutes, Evans said, so he expects that both towns will fight to keep their post offices.

If they lose the battle but find a business willing to open a village post office, Smith Island will have come full circle. When Evans was a boy, his town's post office was run out of the general store.

In a pinch, said Dwight "Duke" Marshall Jr. of Tylerton, he could probably fit a little postal operation into his grocery store, the Drum Point Market. But he hopes the Tylerton post office — just next door — stays open. He thinks the tiny location fits the tiny town.

"It's just perfect," he said.

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