By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Call it snail mail, if you must. But sending and receiving letters through the U.S. Mail continues to be relevant in this ever-evolving high-tech world.
Sure, nothing beats the instant gratification of clicking and sending information or updates to friends and family using e-mail, but gastropod-imagery aside, the U.S. Postal Service, struggling against a growing multi-billion dollar deficit, has been increasing its use of technology in its quest to remain competitive – and solvent – into the 21st Century.
Which is why its somewhat curious that East Derry's one-man post office persists, against all odds – which currently include a government-run entity in the red that most recently proposed home delivery be reduced to five days a week, and another hike in postage rates.
East Derry is one of 224 New Hampshire postal outposts, of which half are considered “small,” employing one or two full-time workers, according to Tom Rizzo, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service Northern New England District.
Glenn Gray has been putting the man in “one-man operation” at East Derry since January, reassigned from Windham Post Office where he worked for the past five years.
He has settled into what has long been business as usual in the quaint and historic post office, adjacent to the general store along East Derry Road.
Mail delivery to residences is still coordinated from the main post office on Tsienneto Road. Gray handles mail flow to 230 post office boxes where customers pick up their mail, and provides counter services to a slow but steady flow of regulars throughout the week, like Devon Markie, who has been a patron of her neighborhood post office for 14 years.
“I prefer this place,” she said on a recent visit to pick up packages that come for her, mostly books.
“When I moved here there were no mail boxes outside the houses. Even though I could easily go to the other post office, I think of this one as my post office,” said Markie. “I live in an 1815 Colonial home, and I like having a post office that matches.”
Customers who frequent the tiny post office often linger over casual conversations in the intimate lobby or just outside, over topics of the day including weather, sports, politics, or just to share memories of bygone days, said Gray.
“If it sounds a little 'Mayberry, RFD,' I guess it is. You get a lot of that here. East Derry is a tight community,” Gray said.
Former town historian Rick Holmes suspects the reason East Derry Post Office continues, in this economy, is a combination of things.
“That it continues to exist is pure habit, or because East Derry is where the movers and shakers live, or the fact that it doesn't cost too much money to operate, or that it serves a purpose – or all of that,” said Holmes, who has chronicled the storied history of Derry's postal service in his collection of town history books.
Although it's unlikely George Washington ever visited the Derry postal center, it was established by Washington during his administration in 1795.
“That should be a point of pride, although I'm not sure most people in Derry even know that. Certainly it's where official correspondence from Washington was delivered. It's where Matthew Thornton got his mail, including any information about what was going on in Philadelphia,” Holmes said.
For years, the post office was run by a rotating cast of characters, post masters appointed based on political affiliation, which changed with just about every election, said Holmes, a policy that changed with the Civil Rights Act of 1883.
A century ago, there was Sunday delivery, said Holmes. Services provided were more comprehensive than they are today.
“I find it personally to be better service in East Derry, which is where I mail my books from. It's faster because it's less crowded. And for many people, the appeal is the small-town feel of it,” Holmes said. “I don't know how many times I'd be driving through East Derry and see Alan Shepard walking down to the post office to pick up his mail.”
In March, U.S. Post Master General John Potter outlined several proposed changes to help pull the U.S. Postal Service out of its current death spiral.
Eliminating Saturday delivery and rethinking its policy of prepayments of retiree health benefits topped the list, with five-day delivery estimated to save the operation $3.1 billion annually.
Potter has also requested another 2-cent hike in postage stamps as of 2011, increasing the cost of a first-class stamp to 46 cents, along with other rate increases.
Despite being a government entity, the U.S. Postal Service receives no funding from tax dollars, relying solely on the sale of postage, products and services to cover its operational costs. Saving the Postal
Service from insolvency may require overhauling its business plan – some talk among insiders has even turned to privatization.
Last year the post office announced plans to shut down or consolidate a fraction of its 36,000 post offices across the country. While there is no threat currently to East Derry's operations, said Rizzo, the future is not set in stone.
“We've looked at consolidating where it's least disruptive, mostly in larger cities. The situation is so dire because of all the changes in how people send and receive information,” said Rizzo, citing the obvious – online bill pay, e-mail and enhanced fax capabilities.
Due to Congressional and regulatory oversight, finding solutions for the U.S. Postal Service is as frustrating as it is complex.
“It's not like an independent company that makes its mind up. For the Postal Service, you ask permission to move in one direction, and before you put weight on that foot, eight different interest groups are pulling you back,” Rizzo said.
“We don't know what the future holds. We have no present plans to close small-town post offices,” Rizzo said. “However, the changes that are going to be necessary are still quite open to discussion. Doing nothing is no longer an option.”
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