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One woman's stamp act

She hopes her sales of postal supplies can keep a town alive

June 04, 2007|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

KEELER, CALIF. — Nylia Swanson jokes that she is the Blanche DuBois of small-town postmasters. She takes advantage of the kindness of strangers, most residing many miles and ZIP Codes away.

The white-haired great-grandmother runs her tiny rural outpost with military precision. Each day at 7:45 a.m., she stoutly hoists the small American flag up the pole outside her door. Peering through her customer-service window, she cheerfully dispenses stamps, envelopes and labels. She manages a wall of tidy postal boxes and calls customers at home if a letter looks important.

And she works her dog-eared Rolodex, which contains more than 100 names of loyal purchasers who live in such places as Alabama and New York but buy their stamps, via mail, from Swanson in Keeler.

Swanson lives in a town on its last legs, a once bustling Owens Valley mining community whose post office, opened in 1883, now serves only 50 mostly elderly souls. These days, the only things for sale in Keeler are Swanson's postal supplies. And residents fear the post office, the focus of the isolated desert town's fragile social life, might one day close as well.

At 72, Swanson is waging a homespun one-woman campaign to keep her office open and her tiny town on the map. Mixing the folksy forthrightness of a cold-calling saleswoman with the heartstrings tug of a Jerry Lewis telethon, she promotes the Keeler post office (ZIP Code 93530) as the spot for one-stop mail shopping.

She pitches the post office to all her friends and relatives and encourages locals to do the same. She spreads the word when she's on vacation, on the telephone, giving blood in a nearby town.

"We're a little post office, and people know we need all the help we can get to stay in business," Swanson said. "And if they don't know, I'm happy to tell them."

As with many rural post offices nationwide, Keeler's future remains unclear. "Sometimes towns dry up and people move away," said Rich Maher, a U.S. Postal Service spokesman. "There's not even a gas station in Keeler to pull people off the road. In the past, small postal branches like this one have consolidated with other towns. So they're working hard to keep their doors open."

For Keeler residents, the post office is much more than just a place to pick up their mail.

Rumbling up in his dusty pickup, Andy Morris, 74, said many folks are too old to travel to the next nearest postal branch, 13 miles away in Lone Pine. Even if they could, they probably wouldn't, he said.

Half of Keeler's 119 postal boxes sit empty. But the post office remains a critical meeting place in a town where residents rarely knock on doors to say howdy. "I'll take my neighbor some eggs or feed her pigs when she goes away, but most of us see each other right here," he said.

If the post office isn't just a post office, Swanson isn't just postmaster, either. She's the town's social switchboard operator, keeping folks abreast of news and gossip -- who's sick, who's having a birthday, whose house is for sale and for how much, what's the latest on plans for the annual "Spring-a-ma-jig" in nearby Darwin.

And Swanson is always scouting for a sale. Some tourists get her pitch when they wander into her post office while en route to Cerro Gordo, the nearby mining ghost town, or to Death Valley, 65 miles away down a winding highway.

Careful not to poach customers from other struggling post offices nearby, she figures that most out-of-staters are fair game. So are any people named Keeler, who have a soft spot in their hearts for this particular little post office.

Faye Keeler happened on the town while on a vacation a few years back. Now she wouldn't think of buying a stamp anywhere else.

"I don't know why I want to order from there, but I do," said the 76-year-old retiree from Alabama. "I like the idea of helping to keep this little place open. The town is mostly dead. We couldn't find anyone there until we happened upon the post office."

Once Swanson has corralled her customers, she keeps them in the fold with folksy seasonal fliers. Why wait in line at your crazy-crowded local post office, she asks, when you can buy your stamps stress-free from her? All orders to the Keeler post office, she pledges, will be returned by priority mail the same day they are received.

"My, how time flies!" began her most recent Christmas pitch. "The holiday season is fast approaching and I wanted to take this opportunity to extend my very best wishes to all of our Keeler postal customers who have so faithfully helped support our little post office throughout the year."

That was Swanson's warmup. Here's her clincher: "It is your business that enables us to remain open and active and a vital part of our historic little community. To date, 59 small post offices have closed nationwide for lack of business."

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