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What We Lose If the Post Office Closes

Personal encounters help make the downtown a vital, working community.

A few weeks ago, I cruised through the parking garage next to , looking for a parking space. I had come to pay my bill for water, sewer and trash service.

I finally snagged a space and went inside, hoping the line would not be too long. When I saw that there were a half dozen people ahead of me, I silently asked myself, “Why do I do this? Why don’t I just mail in my payment?”

The short and simple answer is, “This is what I signed up for when I moved to Leesburg.”

When my wife and I were considering our move from Southern California to Leesburg in the late 1980s, Leesburg really was a small town – less than 20,000 residents – rather than the still-growing exurb it has become. Having lived my entire life in suburbs, college towns and small cities, I was attracted by the notion of living and working in a true small town.

I especially liked the idea of conducting my personal business downtown, within walking distance of my office in the county administration building.

During my lunch hour, I could walk to the bank and still have time to grab lunch. I could pay my town and county taxes in person. I could walk a few blocks and pay my cable television and utility bills. My doctor and dentist had offices downtown. Even my church was just a few blocks away.

And yes, if I needed to buy stamps or mail a package, I could walk to the downtown post office.

I liked the idea of saving on fuel by running such errands on foot. It seemed wasteful to buy a stamp to mail in a payment when I could walk a few blocks and pay it in person. After sitting most of the day, it felt good to stretch my legs and get some exercise.

I also grew to enjoy the small, face-to-face encounters that accompanied these transactions. The people who worked in the various downtown offices became familiar, friendly faces, even if I didn’t always know their names.

Walking the downtown streets was usually a pleasure. Sometimes I would stop three or four times to chat with someone I knew. At times like that, I really felt a sense of belonging – of being part of the fabric of downtown Leesburg.

Over time, some things changed. My bank closed its downtown branch, to be replaced by restaurant. My doctor’s office moved to Lansdowne. I switched cable companies, and now pay that bill electronically.

The biggest change is that I no longer work in downtown Leesburg, so I have to make more of an effort to go downtown to conduct business. Parking can be a challenge.

I pay many of my bills online now. But I have stubbornly held onto a few transactions that I like to make with real people, face-to-face. I use ATMs as little as possible and completely shun drive-through lanes of any kind.

These preferences came to mind when I learned that Leesburg’s downtown post office had been placed on a list of postal branches that . Although it appears to have a temporary reprieve, there is still the possibility that it could eventually close.

I hope that doesn’t happen. Leesburg’s post office is a vital part of its downtown, just as they are in small towns across America. When we weigh costs and benefits of keeping postal branches open, how do we account for the intangible value of those essential elements of a downtown that make it a living, working community?

I don’t like standing in line any more than most people do, and try to time my errands to avoid long lines. But I can think of several occasions when I have encountered people I knew while waiting in line at the post office, and had pleasant, even productive conversations.

Earlier this month, when I took my place in line to pay my utility bill at Leesburg Town Hall, I saw that several people ahead of me seemed to be together. They appeared to comprise three generations of a Hispanic family – an older couple, a young mother, and two little girls, perhaps three and four years old.

The older couple immediately stepped aside and motioned me ahead. They evidently didn’t need to be standing in line ahead of me.

The little girls suddenly pointed down the hall and placed their hands over their mouths in excitement. A young woman was approaching, pushing a stroller.

“A baby!” one of the girls exclaimed. “Look at the pretty baby!” They approached the stroller and gazed adoringly at the baby, whose mother was beaming at their reaction. “Mama, look at the baby!”

“Que linda!” said the older members of the family, admiring the baby. The little girls were beside themselves with excitement.

Then one of the girls noticed me towering above her, gazing down at the scene, and she gave me a big grin. I smiled back at her and nodded in agreement, “How pretty!”

If I remember nothing else about that day, I will remember that scene.

Moments like that remind me why I still insist on conducting business in person, face-to-face, in downtown Leesburg.

joe brewer May 31, 2012 at 02:35 PM
If the post office does not do enough business to pay for itself close it down. How do we account for the intangible value of those essential elements of a downtown that make it a living, working community you ask? I haven't any idea but wasting money on a post office is not a sound idea whether you like walking and paying your bills or not. Do the right thing Leesburg close it now and save the taxpayer dollars that are being wasted.
kathleen fergus May 31, 2012 at 02:44 PM
I agree. This is what Leesburg used to be about. The familiarity. Esoterica closed down and is to be replaced by a real estate agency (can't have too many of them). At least it's not another lawyer. By the way, where does everyone get their shoes repaired nowadays?
Leslie Ackerman May 31, 2012 at 04:13 PM
As marvelous as it all sounds, reality changes very fast in this country. The same drive that creates and innovates is the one that replaces the old and brings the "useless" down. If you want to see a contrast to this system, go to Europe. The US, unfortunately, is becoming a generic brand, and for along time already. A place where all towns look alike, all malls have the same stores, and most people just want it cheap, sweet and succulent. Joni Mitchell said it best: "they paved paradise, and built up a parking lot". But, of course, she is Canadian...
Wayne Waters June 01, 2012 at 01:36 PM
My wife and I relocated from McLean to Leesburg in 1984. I looked forward to the small town atmosphere, coming here to open a computer sales and service business. We lived in McLean 15 years, and when tall spires of buildings built on the edge of Tyson’s Corner became visible on the skyline, it was time for us to move farther out in the country. We bought a house on the north edge of the historic district and settled down. I particularly liked the residential neighborhood we lived in; the bank, post office, town hall, and grocery store only three or four blocks away. Not everyone speaks to you on the street but they always smile and nod to acknowledge you. For 28 years we have lived in that house we bought, a 130 year old Victorian style, on North King Street. When out in front, working, it is fun to get to know people who walk by. There are always inquiries about the house and neighborhood, and I am glad to answer people’s questions. I point to the large new church across the street and fill in with what’s going on there. Since I know progress is always accompanied by change, I am not complaining about what happened the last 28 years. Except, the lingerie and x-rated video store, I do complain about that. Mostly, change is accepted as being good. There are good private postal stores in Exeter and on Plaza Street. They have really short lines, longer hours, friendly operators and the best parking conditions. Accept the change and patronize those small businesses.
Leslie Ackerman June 01, 2012 at 03:02 PM
The fact that I agree with you wholeheartedly shows me, alas, that we are simply old or getting there. As these events are taking over all over the place (and believe me, not only in the USA) we just can regret, remember... and complain.

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