February 8, 2013

SC community store delivers on help amid postal cuts

The flat-rate shipping boxes are next to wide jars of pickled pigs feet, just down the counter from the cash register.

The flat-rate shipping boxes are next to wide jars of pickled pigs feet, just down the counter from the cash register.

Horne’s General Store could be the poster child for the U.S. postal service’s effort to position itself inside the smallest businesses of one-stoplight towns. Or, in the case of Chappells, a village of about 500 people where Horne’s just started selling beer on Sunday, one stop-sign towns.

Village post offices have begun to nestle into convenience stores and small-scale gas stations to offer the smallest communities extra hours of postal service in the wake of USPS budget and delivery cuts.

South Carolina’s first village office opened in Chappells at Horne’s General Store on Thursday. Next week, The Station convenience store in Cameron, 10 miles outside of Orangeburg, will start selling postage, said DeAnn Willard, a USPS retail specialist.

Village post offices are planned for Cassatt near Camden and Green Sea in the Myrtle Beach area, but no contracts have been signed.

The village post office in the general store, which sits catty-corner to the full-service Chappells Post Office, opened a day after the USPS announced it would stop mail on Saturdays in August. However, the opening has been in the works since last year when a USPS cost-cutting plan threatened to close the doors of the post office.

The plan listed 107 South Carolina offices, largely in rural and small communities, that had no postmaster. They were recognized as under-used locations, said Harry Spratin, the regional USPS spokesman.

About 150 of South Carolina’s 347 post offices are in rural areas, Spratin said.

Residents of the targeted communities were given two options: close the local office and use neighboring towns’ resources, or significantly reduce the hours of their current office.

Chappells overwhelmingly voted for the shift in hours. Its office’s hours shrank from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and four hours Saturday, to 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday and two hours Saturday. That’s a drop from 46.5 hours per week to just 22.

Cathy Horne, the original owner and now manager of Horne’s, started looking for a supplemental service and latched on to the proposal of a village post office – operated on contract out of a local business by the business’s staff.

The village post office model began with the postal service’s nationwide cost cuts last year. There are 103 village offices listed on the USPS website, but there are closer to 500 in development, said Spratin.

“It was a fairly slow start, but Americans are really taking to the idea,” Spratlin said.

Although the postal plan’s cost-cutting measures targeted a specific list of offices without a postmaster, any community can open a village post office. A local business must be willing to house the unit and prove it is able to generate a certain level of revenue.

There are no start-up costs for the business.

The biggest problem many rural towns grapple with is lack of businesses. Many communities that could benefit from a village post office have only a post office and a church, Spratlin said. A church doesn’t pull the consistent, daily traffic needed.

In larger cities, chains like Piggly Wiggly and Liberty Tax Service will offer limited postal services as well. Those set-ups are called contract postal units and are available for a higher retail market than the business eligible for the village offices.

Village post offices offer flat-rate shipping boxes and stamps and serve as a collection point for mail and packages. Contract postal units accept more mail and price postage for non-flat-rate packages.

In Chappells, the village post office’s biggest draw is its extended hours: Customers can use the postal services during the store’s hours, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.

“Not everyone can get to the post office when it’s open,” said Terry Russell, a Chappells resident who just repainted and restored the town’s original post office building.

Many of the town’s residents, including Horne and Russell, remain loyal to the adjacent office. The village office cannot issue money orders. The village office model is able to offer P.O. boxes but would like to keep that service with the main office for as long as possible.

Paul Brannon, a Lake Greenwood resident, said he wouldn’t use the village office as long as Chappells Post Office is still standing.

He was born and raised in Chappells and wanted to keep a local address. Instead of using Lake Greenwood’s delivery service out of Cross Hill, he makes the daily drive five miles down the road.

Brannon is on a first-name basis – as are most of the office’s patrons – with Chappells Post Office’s only employee, Mary Sue Hill. She’s been working at the office for 34 years as postmaster relief, even as the postmaster and carrier left for neighboring communities.

She smiles. “Putting up the mail” and talking with her customers are the joys of her job.

The hour cuts aren’t affecting her salary; she’s on Social Security. But it is impossible to get everything sorted on Saturdays with just the two hours, she said, and all the new technology has added extra time to her job.

“I’m not a real computer whiz,” Hill admitted.

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