CAPE MAY POINT - There are winter days when Nancy Kirtland needs the local post office.
But she doesn't have to mail a letter or pick up some stamps. Here, in a summer resort that empties to slightly more than 200 residents when the cold northwest winds start blowing, it's a case of needing to know there are still other people in the world.
"There are times in the winter when the only person I see all day long is at the post office. We love our post office," Kirtland said.
That sentiment is shared by many residents in this resort and other rural areas of southern New Jersey. The small-town post office is a hub of sorts, a place to see neighbors, make conversation and feel a sense of community. It seems to be especially true in towns with a large population of retirees, such as Cape May Point and Fortescue in Cumberland County.
"The routine is to come to the post office every day, do their mailings, get some stamps, and shoot the breeze. It gets them out of the house," Fortescue acting Postmaster Michael Dudo said.
Even in towns with fewer retirees, such as the rural community of Mizpah in Atlantic County, it is still a social gathering point because people are spread out.
"It's somewhat a hub of the area, though we do have a community center. People get their mail and talk, and it's very down to earth," Officer in Charge Maritza Vega said.
But the U.S. Postal Service is considering closing many small post offices as it suffers financial problems brought about in part by increased use of the Internet to communicate, pay bills and conduct business. Mail volume is declining and is projected to continue downward. The economic recession hasn't helped.
The Postal Service announced in July that it is looking at 3,653 facilities, including six in South Jersey, for possible closing. Those offices include Goshen in Cape May County and Dividing Creek in Cumberland County, along with four operations in Ocean County: Harvey Cedars, the Ocean Acres section of Stafford Township, and two small facilities in Long Beach Township on Long Beach Island.
"Southern and central New Jersey fared pretty well in the first round. About 100 locations in central Pennsylvania are being studied," said Raymond Daiutolo, a spokesman for the Post Service region that includes southern New Jersey.
Cape May Point and Fortescue were not on the list, but the concern is that the days could be numbered for small-town post offices everywhere, which typically have a low mail volume.
Maintaining a building, even though many of them are leased, is expensive. Daiutolo said the service has to pay for heat and other utilities, as well as staffing the building.
A longterm trend involves moving postal operations into retail locations such as supermarkets, pharmacies, and chain stores. This saves the cost of owning so many buildings, though Cape May Point doesn't have any such stores. It has only a few businesses, including a book shop and a general store.
Another option is increased home delivery.
"We have to provide everybody with one free form of delivery. If we don't deliver, we have post office boxes," Daiutolo said.
But in small towns such as Cape May Point, the post office is more than a building. Mail is something everybody has in common, so they all come six days a week.
Even on Sundays in Cape May Point, Aileen White's dogs, Bailey and Magellan, pull her toward the building on their morning walk. They want the biscuits Postmaster Melissa Lomax gives them the other six days. A former postal clerk here was known for giving customers jelly beans and a cup of coffee.
"This is the anchor of Cape May Point. Everyone comes here every day," White said.
"I get all the news at the post office plus see my neighbors that I might not otherwise see," chimed in Jane Sbarra.
If a resident is sick, most find out about it at the post office and that resident then gets a flood of get-well cards.
A sign on the wall notified residents about a Halloween hayride. Another advertised a roast beef dinner. Coming here isn't just about getting the mail, which is put in boxes because there is no mail delivery. That is somewhat ironic since the town was founded by former U.S. Postmaster General John Wannamaker, who in 1889 was the first to champion free rural mail delivery. This was 11 years after the borough's first postmaster, Alexander Springer, was appointed. The Springer family ran the post office out of their general store.
Lomax loves the old-time atmosphere but is actually on top of the trends. She sells stamps at area farmer's markets and supports using Facebook and blogs to attract new customers.
"That's what we need to do to bring the Post Office to the people. I believe we need to be constantly on our customers' minds. We need more customer service," Lomax said.
The best customer service may still be right at the counter. When Darryl Terrell had to box a care package to her son in college, a traditional mailing would have cost $38. Lomax explained the new flat-rate price and got the box off for $15. Terrell said Lomax asks her questions that might not be asked at a more impersonal, high-traffic post office.
"She saved me more than half the price. It makes me delighted. That's why I bring her flowers," Terrell said.
"I'm very loved here, and it's mutual," Lomax said.
The windows open here at 9:30 a.m. and the people arrive shortly thereafter. Francine Nietubicz said the post office visit is officially the start of the day prior to other errands. A surprising number of visitors come from other areas, which may be partly due to available parking and friendly service from Lomax.
"It's an important social gathering place, and the service is nice," said Richard Bew.
For some of the retirees, walking or biking here is their exercise. Betty Theobold, 88, walks here six days a week.
"This is where she finds out what's going on in town," said her daughter Carol Gallagher.
For older people the double-whammy may be that they often don't have a computer or know how to do business online.
"I'd say 90 percent don't have a computer. A lot rely on doing most of their stuff through the mail," said Fortescue's Dudo.
Some can barely imagine life without a local post office. It doesn't sound like progress to Malcolm Fraser, of Cape May Point.
"We'd have to put a box outside and somebody would have to drive it down from, wherever. We wouldn't get mail until the afternoon," Fraser said.
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