MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.
You can think of the United States Postal Service as a business with about 33,000 stores. That means post offices on busy corners in big cities. And it means the rural post office, which can serve as the center of a community. We've been hearing this week about the impact of the postal service's budget deficit.
NPR's Noah Adams traveled deep into the mountains of West Virginia to find out what happens when a rural post office closes.
NOAH ADAMS: If you would fly over West Virginia on a clear day, look down from your window seat and you might see Hacker Valley - Hacker Valley as just a wisp of smoke rising from the mountains. Hacker Valley is perhaps 600 people. And when you go there, you'll see and hear the local economy every time a lumber truck comes around a curve.
(Soundbite of truck engine)
ADAMS: Close by the main road, there's a building that used to be the Hacker Valley Post Office. Concrete blocks tired-looking green. For Brian Van Nostrand, it worked fine for the mail and as a meeting place.
Mr. BRIAN VAN NOSTRAND (Potter): People would come, and we'd bump into each other and have long conversations, sometimes, in the parking lot here.
ADAMS: The Hacker Valley Post Office was closed in the summer of 2009. This was termed an emergency suspension. A spokesman for the Postal Regulatory Commission explained: The office is not closed but as far as customers are concerned, it's not open.
Brian Van Nostrand is a potter. He's been working here since 1965. A good share of his business has been by parcel post to regular customers.
Mr. VAN NOSTRAND: They knew my work well, and they would order wedding presents, birthday presents. And just give me a price point, and I would wrap it and ship it to whomever they were giving the gift to.
ADAMS: Van Nostrand has almost quit sending out mail-order pottery because of the trip to a post office: roads up along the ridgelines and back down, with barely a straight stretch for 20 miles north, 20 miles back home. Go south and it's 18 miles round trip, but you'll climb two mountains.
In the ice and snow, sometimes you can't drive to mail packages or pick yours up or to get a money order, and that's important in the Hacker Valley traditional economy. You pay cash for a postal money order to send away, and you'll get a written receipt.
Ms. DONNA BOGGS: People here order their shoes from catalogs, they order clothes, they order books, they do all their seed orders and things. And they all do it with money orders.
ADAMS: This is Donna Boggs. She used to work part time at the post office, where boxes of bees would arrive or baby chicks - paid for by money order. She says a lot of people don't have checking accounts, don't trust the banks. And now, they have to somehow get to a post office.
Ms. BOGGS: We have a lot of people around here. I can name you six people that walked to that post office all the time and now, have to hire somebody to take them if they go. And they don't get to go very often.
ADAMS: The mail is delivered throughout Hacker Valley. It comes right to your box out at the road. But many people had a post office box with a number. They'd go inside, wave at the postmaster, open their box with a key. For one thing, it kept prescriptions very safe.
Mr. BILL LAKE (Lake Lumber and Fence): My name is Bill Lake. And the name of the company here is Lake Lumber and Fence. And I also manage Sun Lumber Company.
ADAMS: The old, shutdown post office is owned by a local resident, who didn't want to renew the lease. Bill Lake thought, why not offer the Postal Service a brand-new building?
So essentially you're saying, we'll build you a post office.
Mr. LAKE: Yeah, that was the offer. We're a general contractor so we had proposed building them a structure, yes.
ADAMS: And you would get help from the community...
Mr. LAKE: Correct.
ADAMS: ...to do it.
Mr. LAKE: Donations for materials and manpower.
ADAMS: Did you think it was going to work?
Mr. LAKE: Originally, yes.
ADAMS: Those talks about a new post office started out fine. And then they slowed, and then they stopped.
(Soundbite of cash register)
Mr. MARK CARPENTER: I have a son that's in the Air Force. And I'm all the time sending him little packages and stuff.
ADAMS: There's a general store in Hacker Valley, and this is now where people meet and talk about the need for a new post office. Mark Carpenter's Air Force son is in New Mexico.
Mr. CARPENTER: We send him cookies, and stuff like that. In a little bit when he was in, he got him a new truck. So when his license comes in, I'm going to box it up and mail it to him. He can hunt out there now, so anything that he needs out there - a vest, his boots, or whatever he might need - I can send them to him now.
ADAMS: Mark Carpenter will be doing a lot more driving. Here at the general store, you can't even buy a stamp. Hacker Valley, West Virginia's Post Office now goes into its second winter under suspension. The Postal Service may soon decide what it wants to recommend. Comments will be invited. The proposal will show up on the bulletin boards at the two nearest, out-of-town post offices.
Noah Adams, NPR News.
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