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The new face of the U.S. post office

By Patrick Oppmann, CNN
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New 'village' post office
  • The U.S. Postal Service, facing $9 billion in debt, is looking to slash operating costs
  • It opened its first "village" post office at a mini-mart in Malone, Washington
  • Some 3,700 other post offices may be turned into village post offices, Postal Service says
  • The couple that runs the mart earns $2,000 a year to let the post office use its store

Malone, Washington (CNN) -- The post office in the tiny Washington town of Malone sells beer and cigarettes. Live worms for fishing, too. The boxes for fixed-rate shipping are wedged between racks of beef jerky and $6.99 sunglasses.

The Malone location is what the U.S. Postal Service has dubbed a "village" post office. It's inside Red's Hop N' Market, the town mini-mart where locals like to buy lottery tickets and a case of beer before the weekend.

It's the only village post office in the country, but soon a similar hybrid may be coming to a town near you.

As the Postal Service buckles under a $9 billion debt, the mail agency has looked for ways to slash operating costs.

"The primary thing we look at is how much revenue they (post offices) generate (and) has that revenue been going down," said Ernie Swanson, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service in Seattle.

"(At) a lot of these offices, there's a postmaster and no other employee. So do they have an hour or two of work a day, and we are paying them for eight hours?"

Some 3,700 post offices may soon face being turned into village post offices, according to the Postal Service. Last week, Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe testified at a Senate hearing that as many as 220,000 post office employees could lose their jobs in the restructuring.

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For Malone -- the test ground for the first village post office -- having mail service quite literally put the town on the map.

Search for Malone on Google Maps, and the only landmark that comes up for the entire town is the original, now closed, post office.

Cheryl Kim and her husband, Johnny, own the Red's Hop N' Market, where the village post office is located.

When the couple received a letter last year from the Postal Service inquiring whether they would incorporate the post office into their store, Cheryl Kim said they were confused.

"We didn't know what to make of it," she said. "So we put it on the back burner."

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Kim said she was convinced after a visit in June by post office officials, who she said, mentioned the possibility that the town could lose its ZIP code if there were no post office.

"If we didn't do this, then the Malone ZIP code was going to disappear," Kim said. "Malone's identity was going to disappear. I didn't want that to happen."

The village post office opened in August in the Kims' store. The couple is paid $2,000 a year to let the post office sell stamps, shipping supplies and place mailboxes alongside the store that residents can access with a key.

According to Swanson, the Postal Service is saving $42,000 with the village post office in Malone.

Future village post offices could be located in malls, town halls or drugstores, according to a Postal Service statement.

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Bringing in some of the post office's customers hasn't been bad for the Malone mini-mart's business either, Kim said.

"We've noticed a lot of new faces," she said. "They come into see what the village post office looked like and what we did in here and what kind of postal options they could get."

Those "postal options" are slim. If customers want to do anything more than to buy stamps, send a package with fixed rate shipping or pick up their mail, they have to drive about four miles away to the closest full service post office.

But Swanson said increasingly post office customers are seeking fewer services.

"Eighty-five percent of our retail sales involve the sale of just postage stamps," he said.

(At) a lot of these (post)offices, there's a postmaster and no other employee.
--Ernie Swanson, U.S. Postal Service spokesman

While some residents have grumbled about the lack of services, others were glad that they can still pick up their mail from individual locked mailboxes that run along the side of the market, Kim said.

Some disabled people and town residents who don't own cars, she said, would have a hard time getting their mail otherwise.

Malone may have the distinction of being the first American town to have its post office downgraded to a "village" location, but few residents said they see any slight.

"I have been in some towns smaller than Malone; they still have post offices, but I guess you got to start somewhere," said Ron Johanson, a local auto mechanic.

So far, Johanson said, fellow residents don't seem to mind retrieving their mail from the outdoor boxes placed against the wall of the mini-mart during the summer.

It might be different story though, he said, once the drizzly weather returns to the notoriously rainy Pacific Northwest.

"Come back in March," Johanson said. "That will be the real test."