How the U.S. Postal Service Fell Apart

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Chuck Berman / Chicago Tribune / MCT / Getty Images

The post office in Millington, Ill., pop. 665, is one of many small-town post offices slated to close as a result of the U.S. Postal Service's financial problems

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In Philadelphia one of the locations slated to close is the colonial-themed B. Free Franklin post office. It doesn't fly a flag because the mail delivery there was established before the nation was founded. It uses a unique postmark featuring a franking technique created by Ben Franklin. And it's on the list of post offices slated to close, stirring up sadness and anger for those who love the historic location.

I asked Donahoe what sort of advice Franklin, the first postmaster general, might give his successor today. "I think that Benjamin would probably say, Don't be penny-wise and pound foolish."

Will Walmart Be the New Post Office?
While some post office services are migrating to small general stores, many are going into national big-box stores like Walmart and Costco and Safeway, where you can get anything from a flu shot to spark plugs to new glasses.

Some will have P.O. boxes, and they'll all sell stamps and allow people to mail packages. Many will even be open later than a traditional post office.

"They really like to make the point that you can buy stamps in 100,000 places like Walmart, but that's really not all the post office entails," says Kalish, the postal-card collector. "The reason they're doing this is so they can say, Hey, look, in your community we just saved money. But it's just devaluing that community."

Those who are trying to save the USPS often argue that Village Post Offices like the one in Malone are being incorrectly billed as direct replacements for traditional post offices. "They're designed to be as bare-boned as possible," Kalish says. "You can't request a [return] receipt. You can't weigh a package. You have to send it priority. You have to send it in this type of box. It's just not a sufficient replacement."

The services are reduced, but the real issue that is driving those concerned and obsessed with the postal service is that we're slowly watching a piece of American history evaporate — the colonial Franklin post office in Philly, post offices (some designed by Franklin D. Roosevelt himself) with incredible New Deal murals, the South's first post office built after the Civil War. All of them could be gone as those and others get turned into shops and real estate offices and Bergdorf Goodmans.

In the end, the debate about the USPS is simple: it's the privatization of a service that is supposed to be universal. But universal access doesn't exactly sync with the market's guiding hand. That's why UPS and FedEx don't ship everywhere. It's just not profitable for them. So where do they turn for last-mile delivery? To the postal service. Those private mail carriers are two of the USPS's biggest customers.

Meanwhile, as post offices are closing, as Washington is grappling with the larger financial problems of the nation and as communities are protesting, Kalish is on the road. In between taking classes and adjusting to his new life as a grad student, he's documenting the slow death of an American institution.

"This weekend I visited another 119 post offices, including 32 on the hit list," he e-mailed me last month. "Four days, 1,110 miles, 45 hours on the road. Grand total: 2,561 ... And yes, all this while doing graduate work at UPenn. But somebody's got to stand up for these communities."

Editor's note: Since we talked to Kalish, the Malone, Wash., sign has been moved to a museum in Ohio.

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