A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

It takes a Village (Post Office) to help rural North Middletown maintain service, identity


 caption (Photo by Kristy Robinson Horine)

Country Boy convenience store in North Middletown is a USPS official Village Post Office. (Photo by Kristy Robinson Horine)


 

By Kristy Robinson Horine
KyForward correspondent
 

Ann Burden stands at the end of a canned goods aisle in the small convenience store the locals call Country Boy and wipes down the side of a humming slushy machine. She can remember the way things were in the small, painted white brick building across the street and up the hill in the Bourbon County community of North Middletown. It is the building that used to be a full-service post office.
 

“I remember talking to Mrs. Chamberlain. She’d chat with everybody, but it’s been a while since she was in there,” Burden says. She speaks of the former post mistress, Belva Chamberlain, who most all of the older folks remember. “The price of a stamp then was 3 cents.”
 

Burden folds the damp white cloth in her hand and looks up as a patron comes through the door. Her younger coworker, Hallie Finley, calls out a hello. The customer moves past the Ale-8 cooler, down the candy aisle and heads to the cold drink case that lines one back wall. At the end of the case stands a kiosk of sorts that holds flattened U.S. Postal Service boxes of various sizes and price ranges.
 

The sign that declares Country Boy is an Approved Postal Provider leans up next to another case. The sign says, “Village Post Office, North Middletown, KY 40357.” It will be hung, eventually, but neither of the employees can say when or where. For now, a small navy blue sticker bearing the USPS flying eagle logo and pictures of stamps and boxes, is affixed to the front door. In the small town of just over 600 people, news travels faster by word of mouth than through the post anyway.
 

From time to time, however, the residents of this one-stoplight town need to use more than word of mouth. They need a postal service. Burden and Finley have become, in essence, just like the post mistresses of old. They can sell stamps, handle flat rate packages, and ask the customary Aviation Security questions, like if the package contains liquid, is fragile, perishable or hazardous.
 

 caption (Photo by Kristy Robinson Horine)

(Photo by Kristy Robinson Horine)

Across the street and up the hill, in the building that is separated from U.S. 460 by a thin strip of grass and a sidewalk cracked with age, residents can still have a post office box and can purchase supplies and send materials. At least for now. Because of USPS budgetary shortfalls, hours at the North Middletown Post Office were seriously reduced to about four hours a day. The purpose of a Village Post Offices (VPO) – a smaller post office inside another retail establishment such as Country Boy – is to give customers more of what they need: communication and service.
 

Jeff McFarland, North Middletown’s mayor for eight years, says the primary post office and the VPO also play another role in the community: identity.
 

“The identity of the community is there because of the post office and the elementary school,” McFarland says. “We are the only [small] community in Bourbon County left with an elementary school, all the other communities have closed their schools and consolidated. I can’t but think we are on borrowed time for that, too. I’d hate to see that as well as losing the post office.”
 

McFarland has lived in North Middletown every one of his 52 years. His memories of the post office run similar to that of Burden, it was the hub of information and news, in addition to the mail. Over the years, McFarland and the other longtime residents have seen businesses crumble and people move away. It is rural, with the closest city of Paris being 11 miles down a winding road. A tenacity to hold onto that identity is a point of pride and necessity for the small town.
 

North Middletown is not alone.
 

David Walton, a USPS spokesperson for the Kentuckiana District, said that Kentucky leads the nation in the decision to establish VPOs.
 

“In 2012, we actually looked at closing post offices,” Walton says. “There was such a push back from communities that did not want to lose their post offices. We then came up with the concept of a Village Post Office.”
 

The Kentuckiana District is just one district across the nation and it covers the majority of Kentucky, with the exception of far northern areas of the state. It also includes nearly a dozen counties in Southern Indiana. Four of the seven mail processing centers for the district – those located in Louisville, Lexington, Paducah and Evansville – handle 40 million pieces of mail a week.
 

Even with what seems like a staggering volume, the USPS is forced to consider closures, or at least, a departure from the way folks are used to, Walton says. This means embracing village post offices, something that might be appealing because they are considered a throwback to the old days of the general store, where the man behind the counter could sell penny candy, a bolt of cloth and handle mail services.
 

 caption (Photo by Kristy Robinson Horine)

Hours at the North Middletown Post Office have been reduced to about four hours a day. (Photo by Kristy Robinson Horine)

As of the middle of May, there were a total of 610 VPOs nationwide, with Kentucky having almost a sixth of that number.
 

“Kentucky has so many because it’s very rural and we have many post offices that are going through reduction in hours,” Walton said. “Here, we have gone into what we call a ‘post plan.’ We go into low-performing areas, have a community meeting and give customers a choice.”
 

That choice, Walton says, is a win-win situation for the businesses who decide to become operational VPOs.
 

In order to claim the VPO status, there has to be an existing retail or business outlet already in the community. In Kentucky, VPOs are found in bait and tackle shops, convenience stores, and gas stations. VPOs are usually located in areas where the existing post office has closed or has been forced to reduce hours. Employees of the VPOs are not considered post office employees, although background checks are conducted by the USPS to ensure a measure of integrity that the organization has been known for throughout the years.
 

VPOs can sell the most popular USPS items such as Forever Stamps and Flat Rate Shipping boxes. They can even offer Priority Mail services, and some have banks of post office boxes on the premises where patrons can pick up their mail. VPOs will not personally deliver mail to customers, and the packages, once received in the host VPO establishment, are picked up by bona fide postal employees and taken to a central post office location.
 

Kentucky’s first VPO, located in J & S Convenience store on Highway 40 in Tomahawk in Martin County began its operations in June of 2012. Owner James Fields says there is not much difference between running the regular convenience store and running it as a VPO.
 

“It pretty much takes care of itself,” Fields says. “They shut down the post office and people were just looking for a place to pick up their mail. It’s just a small community and we’re just trying to help.”
 

Fields said in addition to selling stamps and accepting packages, the USPS went a step further and installed a bank of over 100 p.o. boxes. Fields says he supplied the place, the USPS put up the boxes, and he built a little shed over them to keep everyone dry.
 

His store hours are 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturdays, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays – longer hours than a regular post office. North Middletown’s Country Boy holds hours of 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day except for Sundays, when the hours are 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.
 

Despite rising to meet the challenges, rural Kentucky communities and the USPS have a long way to go to change with the times. During what financiers are calling The Great Recession, 2008 and 2009, there was a significant drop in spending. This hurt hometowns, no matter what the size. And it significantly impacted the postal service.
 

Around the same time, businesses such as mortgage companies, credit cards and utilities, moved to an online payment system. In many cases, the online payments carry no extra fees. In addition, online communication exploded onto the scene and people just stopped sending letters like they used to. The post offices saw a significant drop in first class mail.
 

The USPS expanded services to include selling stamps at ATMs and grocery stores. They also stepped into the digital age with an online retail store.
 

“Now, a third of our revenue comes from those alternate access locations, which includes USPS.com,” Walton says, noting that the agency is not supported by tax dollars, as many Americans think. “We are a quasi-governmental agency. This means that we have to support ourselves, yet at the same time, we are regulated by Congress. That’s kind of a sticking point. We are looking at many changes and we are looking at legislation right now that will help us. We are hopeful.”
 

And residents of North Middletown are hopeful as well. For now, they survive and the mail continues for yet another day.
 

KyForward correspondent Kristy Robinson Horine is a writer and adjunct writing instructor. She lives in Paris with her husband, Eric, and four children.


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