COMMUNITY HUB by Linda Beck
The Post Office is your social headquarters
These days, the trek to the post office and the infamously long, slow line at the window are tasks we generally avoid. Online shopping allows us to mail gifts directly to our friends without these inconveniences. In the past, however, a trip to send and gather mail wasn’t an inconvenience at all.
America’s first post office wasn’t set in a drab institutional building, but rather in the bustling tavern of Richard Fairbanks on Boston’s Long Wharf. New York City chose a more abstemious alternative in the form of a coffee shop. Mail was tossed into barrels or baskets or in a pile on a common table for patrons to sift through while socializing and discussing local news and colonial politics. In Alice Morse Earle’s Stage-Coach and Tavern Days, John Ward Wescott described these spots as “the headquarters of life and action, the pulsating heart of excitement, enterprise, and patriotism.”
The storefront postal center model would be duplicated in the farm towns that sprang up throughout the countryside of the new nation. South Orange established its first federal post office in 1841 in a general store (on the block west of old Village Hall) owned by resident John Durand Freeman. The United States Postal Service: An American History reveals that it was open even on Sunday, and that “[s]ome ministers complained that the men would…leave the church, and head for the Post Office, where they would visit with each other and even play cards.” As if a card game weren’t damnation enough, it then moved across the street to Marcus Ball’s Tavern (where Spiotta Park is today), although in this period the local tavern offered sustenance, drink, and lodging and not necessarily the more debaucherous “menu items” of a saloon.
Until the turn of the 20th century, Maplewood’s mail would be dropped off at its local general store (which was not designated as an official post office) and relayed by neighbors to and from South Orange’s Post Office. The first locations were nestled into the Crowell family’s Clinton Valley General Store (on Valley Street, near today’s Town Hall), then at Harry Baker’s General Store (Baker Street) and Charlie Stewart’s General Store (Springfield Avenue).
In Maplewood, Past and Present by Helen B. Bates, G. Clifford Jones, who grew up in Maplewood, describes Stewart’s as “heated by the largest pot-bellied stove I had ever seen....That store in the early days was more of a gathering place than any of the saloons. Mail came in twice a day. Kids, including myself, were there to meet it, and we waited until Charlie or his clerk, Jim Gavin, had sorted it.…There usually wasn’t a great deal, but it was a good excuse for the gathering of the clan.”
In those days, we wrote letters telling far away folks about the people in our small villages. When we received a letter, we narrated the news from afar to the family ceremoniously or we stole away and read it sacredly in private. Octogenarian and long-time SOMA resident Marilyn Schnaars remembers being on the receiving end. “We used to sit on and swing from the lamp posts and wait for the mailman to come. We didn’t have anything better to do. You spent your time on the lamp post. It was a gay old time. But when he didn’t bring you anything, boy, you didn’t like that.”
Our postmasters and clerks knew us by name, even asking for updates about our distant kin. Handling a letter or package was a personal transaction, far from the inconvenient queue of today.
But it doesn’t have to be. A visit to either SOMA post office these days can offer us a taste of the general store or the tavern a century and a half in the past.
According to one patron, interactions with Maplewood postmaster Robynn Burns are so missed by his daughter (due to the social distancing order) that she has made a “Postmaster Robynn” Lego figure at home. In South Orange, postmaster John Cordelione stopped what he was doing to take a trip back to the safe to fetch some fresh Tyrannosaurus Rex stamps for a patron when the window stock had depleted. The mundane isn’t a time-waster when we take a minute and actually engage; it can afford a refreshing vignette of congeniality instead.
Postmaster John is from Hackensack, NJ. He’s been in the postal service for 17 years. Before last year he was stationed in Blairstown, the site of the movie Friday the 13th. Appropriately, he likes horror films (also comedy). He hunts and fishes, rides a motorcycle, and loves to spend time with family. He listens to classics on the way to and from work and buys his coffee locally. He’s fond of the “Purple Heart” and “Transcontinental Railroad” stamps. According to John, the oddest counter experience he’s had is helping a lady ship a set of false teeth overseas to her husband after he left without them. His weirdest receipt: A shipment of live bees and ducks for a local customer.
Postmaster Robynn is from Brooklyn, NY. She’s a 23-year veteran of the postal service. She makes her coffee and her lunch at home most of the time and listens to gospel on the way to and from work. Outside of work, you may overhear someone calling her “Sunshine,” and she is certainly worthy of that nickname inside the post office walls. She loves movies such as Pretty Woman and doing jigsaw puzzles, and she’s partial to stamps with flowers on them. During our “social pause,” she has noticed an upswing in parcels and letters…perhaps a sign of people wanting to connect.
Both postmasters emphasize their fondness for our community. Robynn considers her coworkers family, and finds it a joy to come to work and see her friendly customers. John acknowledges that some people are in for a quick transaction and others long for a kind listening ear. When asked what they would do if a live bear walked into the post office, John replied that he would evacuate and call 911. Robynn admitted she would probably scream. Both would like to assure the public that if the bear had a letter to mail, they would happily assist.
Take a minute to write a letter to a friend across the country. Tell her about our two little towns. Look at the stamps in the display and pick out just the right one. Now that you know a little about them, stop rushing and have a visit with the folks in the line and at the counter. They’re your people.
And if you’re wondering what happens to a letter once it has been slipped through the slot, John says that it is delivered by “the most magical mail carrier fairies,” while Robynn employs a flock of “carrier pigeons.” They can tell you a little more about each the next time you have a visit.
Linda Beck lives in South Orange and is the person ahead of you chatting up the window clerk.