More than just stamps


TAYLORS ISLAND -- It's just a little white wooden building, so small it doesn't even have indoor plumbing, tucked on a strip of land where the road forks just past the schoolhouse.

But the Taylors Island branch of the U.S. Postal Service, ZIP code 21669, is there to stay. Nearly every one of the tiny island's 326 residents protested forcefully when the Postal Service considered closing it, and earlier this month the post office delighted residents by deciding to keep it open.

"It's easier to shut down a military base than it is to close a post office," said Paul Alexander, manager of post office operations for the Eastern Shore. He should know -- he is responsible for 110 post offices on the Shore, and 87 of them are small, rural offices whose existence is questioned every time a postmaster retires.

"I call them my Norman Rockwell places," Mr. Alexander said. And it's true. On Taylors Island, a remote spot in Dorchester County, as in so many other rural areas on the Shore, the post office is the town's heart, the place where people stop to chat, visit, buy stamps and get the mail. (The island has no rural-route delivery; residents pick up their mail at the post office.)

"When we held the community meeting, there was very strong support," Mr. Alexander said, recalling the 2 1/2 -year period of study his office conducted on the Taylors Island facility. How many residents attended the meeting in May 1994? "All of them -- I should have gotten combat pay that night."

They also called and wrote letters defending their little post office, he said -- the file on Taylors Island is 514 pages thick, the biggest one he's assembled on any facility. Now the search has begun for a postmaster to replace George Moore, whose retirement 2 1/2 years ago precipitated the review.

"This is a very important and integral part of life on Taylors Island," said resident Sherry Billhimer. "It's how we see each other, know each other." Ms. Billhimer, one of the residents who attended the meeting and wrote a letter to Mr. Alexander, goes to the post office every day.

Postmaster needed

Like many of the other residents who called and wrote Mr. Alexander, Ms. Billhimer wants the temporary officer in charge to become the island's postmaster.

Jamie Dickerson, 33, has been the officer in charge since April. A native of Dorchester County, she said she will apply for the vacancy.

"Jamie has become a friend and a confidante and we enjoy having her here," Ms. Billhimer said last week as she stopped by the post office.

"I really like it here," Ms. Dickerson said, leaning across the counter, where a metal grille divides her tiny work space from the equally tiny lobby housing 190 mailboxes and one deer antler, whose history no one seems to know. "I was raised near here. I've been here [at Taylors Island] since April and I've gotten to know a lot of people."

The Friday afternoon traffic confirmed her assessment. Every one of the dozen or so people who came in the door over a three-hour period addressed her by name, and she knew their names as well, chatting casually as she sold stamps, handed over mail and issued money orders.

"Even though it's a small building, we do everything," she said proudly. "Stamps, money orders, retail products -- packaging, tape, padded bags, envelopes, labels, boxes -- we have all that stuff. We can do overnight mail."

The small facility is busy all day, Ms. Dickerson said, with a steady trickle of residents stopping by to get mail and chat. The facility handles about 175,000 pieces of mail a year, Mr. Alexander said. It costs about $38,000 a year to keep open -- that includes the postmaster's salary, rent and utilities.

No one can say for sure when Taylors Island first opened its post office, but Mr. Alexander estimated the post office's history on the island at 145 years or so. It originally was housed in a store near the bridge leading to the island, and moved to its current location in 1935, he said.

3 a.m. visits

The lobby is open 24 hours a day, and Ms. Dickerson said that some of the watermen, who start work before dawn, stop by at 3 a.m. to get their mail.

The portable toilet beside the post office used to be open around the clock also, but no more -- a few weeks ago someone left a road-kill fox in it, Ms. Dickerson said.

But that, and the theft of one poster promoting the new Marilyn Monroe stamps, are the only troubles the facility has had, she said.

"I don't think it was personal," Ms. Dickerson said of the fox. "Someone had a beer party out here that weekend "

Now there's a padlock on the portable toilet.

But Ms. Dickerson will hand the key across the counter to anyone who needs it.

It's all part of her job, along with sweeping the lobby, raising and lowering the flag each day beside the building and knowing each and every customer by name.

The postal service job description for postmasters reads, in part: "Postmasters are expected to identify with and be appropriately involved in the community they serve."

It's hard to find that in the big post offices, but not on Taylors Island.

"It means a lot to us," Ms. Billhimer said.

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