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Post office closures could leave many customers without a stamping ground

For more than 200 years, U.S. post offices have served as the heart of all sorts of communities. But with mail volume declining and fewer people using stamps and envelopes, the future of the institution is threatened.

July 29, 2011|By Nita Lelyveld and Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times
  • A woman walks her dog past the Arcade Post Office on South Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles. It's on a list of 3,653 U.S. post offices being considered for possible closure.
A woman walks her dog past the Arcade Post Office on South Spring Street in… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Los Angeles and Loma Mar, Calif. -- Carmen Pimpton loves simply walking across South Spring Street to get to her local downtown Los Angeles post office, where she frequently shows up in her comfiest clothes to send Avon products to Arizona, Nevada and Sacramento.

"I come here undressed. My hair's not done…. I can come here in my pajamas," said the 44-year-old resident of the Alexandria Hotel, who also works in the deli at a Von's. "This is my place."

Up the coast in San Mateo County, people feel much the same sense of ownership at the very different, very rural, 80-year-old post office presided over by Susan Penery in Loma Mar, population 113.

"A lot of people here don't get mail delivered to their homes," said Beth Wilford, owner of the Loma Market, which has operated under the same roof as the post office since the tiny redwood settlement was a logging camp.

For more than 200 years, U.S. post offices have served as the heart of all sorts of communities — rural, suburban, inner-city. But mail volume has declined more than 20% in the last five years, and with fewer people using stamps and envelopes, the future of those post offices is threatened.

This week, the Arcade Post Office on South Spring and the Loma Mar station both found themselves on a list of 3,653 U.S. post offices being considered for closure. The list includes 112 California post offices, about 30 of those in Los Angeles County. The U.S. Postal Service will make final decisions after a 60-day comment period.

A self-supporting government enterprise, the service has been struggling for years. At its height, it had about 38,000 outposts across the country. Today that number is 32,000. The agency expects to lose more than $8 billion and reach the limit of its borrowing capacity by the end of the 2011 fiscal year. If it were to close all the post offices on the list, which is unlikely, the estimated savings would be $200 million.

More than 35% of the service's retail revenue now comes from what it calls "expanded access locations" — supermarkets, drugstores, ATMs, office supply chains and other retail outlets, and its website, usps.com.

"Our customers' habits have made it clear that they no longer require a physical post office to conduct most of their postal business," Postmaster General Patrick Donahue said in a statement.

News of the possible closure hit hard in downtown Los Angeles, where two other post offices have been targeted. The Arcade Post Office is a great convenience for a growing number of loft dwellers and a necessity — both home address and bank teller — for some of the neighborhood's poorest residents.

They say it would be hard to have to go to the post office at Macy's on 7th Street between Hope and Flower or the one at 2nd and Los Angeles streets in Little Tokyo.

"A lot of us are in ill health and can barely make it to here," said Joan Johnson, 62, when she arrived one morning this week, moving very slowly, using her folding shopping cart as a walker.

Johnson, who said she once worked as an administrative assistant for Boeing and had a home in Compton, now lives in the Baltimore Hotel at 5th and Los Angeles streets. She said she had just been released from the hospital and had come out to mail a very important disability form.

Another post office in the skid row area — at 7th and Central — is open only four hours a day, which has pushed a lot of customers to Spring Street.

The first of the month is probably the busiest at the little post office, with P.O. boxes on one wall, a mail slot, broken scale and packing materials on the other, a short counter in front and a couple of islands for filling out forms running down the center.

It's when Warren Cox, who picks up and sorts the mail for the P.O. boxes, sticks the first batch of Supplemental Security Income checks into many of the slots — the only mail, he said, many customers ever receive.

It's also when Terri Taylor, behind the counter, issues a lot of the money orders people use to pay rent.

There was a time, Cox and Taylor said, when the talk from the powers-that-be was of expansion. A decade ago, the little post office was remodeled. A glass-fronted room with a locked entrance was meant to be used for passport services. Until very recently, said Cox, they were hearing they might expand hours to stay open later.

That would make sense to Mark Ferem, 51, who spends his days on the streets, answering questions as an ambassador for the Downtown Center Business Improvement District.

"To pull a post office out of this resurging area, you're just pulling one more peg out of its coming along," he said.

Just outside the post office, people walked leisurely by, holding cups of coffee topped by thick foam and stopping to pause when their dogs did.

Some know Cox and Taylor by name. But they use the post office for reasons that won't much help its bottom line.

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