Maybe you don't spend a lot of time thinking about the post office. Maybe you even try to avoid yours. But the post office is a huge part of America's history, culture, and economy, and without it, your life would be a heck of a lot more difficult. Which is why it's so disturbing that the U.S. Postal Service is shutting down post offices left and right. Oh, what's that? You didn't know? Meet Steve Hutkins, who's single-handedly fighting to save your mail.
Hutkins, a professor at NYU's Gallatin school, first became interested in the plight of the post office earlier this year, when the office in his tiny Hudson Valley town was in danger of closing. He started reading up on the Postal Service's plans, and that's when he got angry. Hutkins channeled his frustrations into the appropriately-named Save The Post Office, part information clearinghouse and park historical record of post office-related news. The blog has become so popular that Hutkins is now taking a leave of absence from NYU to focus on it. We spoke to him about the future of mail across the country.
Why did you start this and where did this idea come from? I live in a small town where we go to the post office and pick up the mail because we don't have delivery. The post office is a very important place in our little hamlet. I also live not far from several really nice post offices built during the New Deal where Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a personal hand in the design of the post offices and they have beautiful New Deal murals in them. They're very historically significant places. Our postmaster here won the postmaster award for New York State. It's just a great place for post offices.
Like everybody else I took them for granted. Until last March, when articles started to appear in the news that the Postal Service wanted to close thousands of post offices. A few articles had appeared earlier and I didn't pay any attention. I started to take note last March that the Postal Service was embarking on a plan to close lots of offices. The first number back then was around two thousand, so I started to get concerned about my town's post office. I made an instant Web site and put a petition on it and we made refrigerator magnets, 'save the Rhinecliff post office.' Just started you know, a mini-movement in the town to just get people aware of the danger to the post office. It turned out that our post office wasn't on any list. There wasn't any imminent danger but I had already gotten interested and as I was reading deeper into the Postal Service's own documents that they were really serious about closing a lot of post offices and it just hadn't happened yet.
I switched the Web site over from being a local one about our community to one with a national focus. It's intention was to be an information clearing house so I started indexing all the news articles that came out so that they were more readily available. I started reading them and educating myself about what was going on. I stated some strong opinions about what I was witnessing and the blog took off in a more editorial fashion. I did that for a couple of months with nobody really looking at it. I just kept at it and got increasingly critical about what the Postal Service is doing— the more I learned the more disturbing the whole thing became.
What do you mean by disturbing? Why is the Postal Service saying they're closing all these post offices, and why do you think they actually are? The Postal Service says they're closing the post offices because they're losing all this money. You hear about that every day, that the Postal Service is losing billions of dollars because everybody is using e-mail and revenues are down, down, down. They have to do whatever they can to cut costs. They say that the post offices are underperforming and under utilized and they are an anachronism and they have to go. Many people just buy that argument because they know that the general economy is in trouble and they know e-mail is popular so they believe the Postal Service when they say that.
But, when you look into it more you find out all kinds of other perspectives on what's happening such as the amount of money that it costs to run thousands and thousands of small post offices is relatively miniscule in the overall budget of the Postal Service and the amount of billions that they're losing on an annual basis. The closing of a post office is not going to have hardly any impact at all on solving the problem. Plus, Congress has mandated that the Postal Service keep all those small rural post offices going. They're protected by law. You can't close a post office only for financial reasons, solely because it’s running at a deficit. The Postal Service is finding all kinds of ways to get around that such as when a postmaster retires or leaves his position, they don't replace that postmaster. And then they use that as an additional reason to close the post office. They let he lease run out on the building and then they use that as a reason to close the post office.
So if they're not going to save much money, why are they doing this? I've personally been perplexed by that. I've come up with a couple of possibilities and explanations. One is: they're so locked into the corporate mindset that has been put upon them. The Postal Service used to be a government department, subsidized through taxpayer appropriations. In 1970 it switched over to a business model and now it’s an agency owned by the government, but not subsidized with taxpayer money, it pays its own way. They're so locked in to this mentality of acting like a business I think they're thinking like any business. If you have an outlet that's not bringing in money, you get rid of it! They're not paying attention to their universal service obligation—that's the law that requires them to provide service no matter if it's losing money. I think that part of it is that they're so locked into acting like a corporation that they're getting rid of anything that is losing them money even though it's miniscule. We're talking tiny! Most of these rural post offices are paying something like $500 in rent. Not extremely expensive to operate.
My other theory, the one I wrote about earlier in the week, is that the Postal Service has a master plan that has been engineered by corporate powers to privatize the Postal Service. There's all kind of evidence that privatization is the direction they're going, from articles in the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News to various other business-oriented media outlets. They're all kinds of conservative right-wing think tanks that produce academic justifications for it. This is happening in other countries around the world. So they want to privatize the U.S. Postal Service, but people are very attached to their post offices. They associate the post office with a public service. I'm starting to think that they want to get rid of the post office so that people will detach their feelings for the place, the post office, from the system that delivers the mail. They won't care as much about what happens to it when there's no post office to anchor the abstraction of the process that delivers the mail into the concrete experience of a place.
What about email? I feel like I hardly get paper mail anymore, everything is online. That's the every day person's experience of the mail, but the mail is a gigantic industry. Over one trillion dollars a year. The Postal Service brings in revenues of almost 70 billion dollars a year. So, e-mail, while it may contribute to the loss of revenue for the Postal Service, it's mostly been the recession. It's not e-mail. E-mails are like the telephone. They are not really impacting the use of mail, at least not as much as the Postal Service keeps saying. Every once in a while people shift over and they pay their bills or something like that. There's a ton of money in mail and the e-mail line is a distraction. It appeals to people like you and me who are like, 'I don't get that much stuff in the mail.' But the mail is huge, there's lots and lots of stuff going in it—Amazon, medicines, it's huge. The industry itself is not suffering because of e-mail. The Postal Service is using a line when they say that.
Is it just you manning the entire blog? I'm afraid so! It's me doing the webmaster stuff, the writing, finding the pictures, all that. Although, I've been getting so many e-mails from reporters, and bloggers, and every day people. I'm going to start including some guest blogger type things so that other people can write for the website because there's not that many places to put that kind of stuff.
I understand you're taking a leave of absence from NYU to focus on this project. Did you have any idea that this would turn into an all consuming project? I knew when I was going to shift over to do the national focus I was really worried about what I was getting into because I could see what the Postal Service was up to. I could see what was going to happen in this country because part of my research led me to discover what had happened in the UK. In Britain they had like twenty thousand post offices and they closed almost half of them in a short amount of time. That provoked hundreds of 'Save the Post Office' websites and videos and petition drives. They formed a national organization to coordinate the efforts to resist the closing of the post offices. I could see that happening here. There's going to be rallies and Facebook pages and websites. It's going to be a big job to start to work at coordinating them the way Britain had been doing so I asked myself, 'Are you sure you want to do this? It's just going to get deeper and deeper.' And for some reason, I don't know why, I just said I'd do it and see what happens and it's just gotten deeper and deeper.
Have you heard of anyone at the Postal Service having a reaction to your blog?
[Laughs.] No. The only thing I've heard is from organizations of postal workers, union leaders, Association of Postmasters. They e-mail me and ask if they can reprint one of my blog posts in their newsletters, they lend me support, they give me some information and things like that. As far as the Postal Service is concerned—no. I am way too critical of them and they don't give me a ring and I don't give them a ring. The Washington Post asked the Postal Service in that article if they were familiar with my blog and they said yes, but that was the extent of it.
Is there an end in sight? For the post office, the end will be when they've closed as many post offices as they want to. The way this is going to go down the next few months and beyond is like this: they've put out two lists, with 4,500 post offices, at various stages of the closing process. Over the next six months to a year they're going to work their way through the list of 4,500 post offices and close a very large percentage of them. So we're going to see, as the fall comes on, more and more closings. Come the end of December and winter, more and more closing. We will start to see post offices closing at the rate of a hundred a week. They've been closing at a rate of one hundred a year for the past 40 years. The speed at which they close is going to be so intense that people are going to be talking about it a lot and then Congress is going to get into the act and either put a stop to it or endorse it. If they succeed in doing it without Congressional approval or getting Congressional approval, there's going to be another list and another list because the Postmaster General says he wants to close half of the countries 32,000 post offices over the next six years.
The post offices will close and they will be replaced by postal facilities in super markets, convenient stores, 7-11, CVSs. There's not going to be the traditional brick and mortar post offices anymore. This is already happening—you go to a supermarket and there's a postal counter, you can go buy your stamps at the CVS, there's automatic kiosks right now. You can buy stamps out of the machine, those machines will be everywhere! They already say, 'we don't need post offices anymore because we have all these alternatives', but the country never said they didn't want post offices anymore. This just happened to us, we didn't vote on this or agree to it.
What does that mean for the blog? The blog was originally conceived not to exactly stop the closings, I never really believed that I could have any impact on that, it was more of a witness thing, that they were going to close all these post offices and they were going to be forgotten and I felt like a historian who wanted to record them before they were gone. The main kind of posts that I like to write is a post that tells the story about a particular post office that's closing or that's fighting a closing. I use the newspaper articles that come up but then I do more research about the history of the town, the history of the post office, what's unique about the architecture or something about that place to give it more of a sense of place story line. I've done maybe about 50 of those, I try to do one a week, sometimes two a week. That's where I try to tell the story of a post office and I'm going to be doing a lot of that. I can't do one for every one of three thousand, four thousand post offices. I'm gonna try.