Claiborne, Md. Sends a Special Delivery Message to the Top: Hands Off Our Post Office

UPDATED 05/09/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/09/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

A town can survive the loss of a fire-house, a mayor—or maybe even the Dairy Queen. But not, say Jim Richardson, his wife, Martha Hamlyn, and the 270 other residents of tiny Claiborne, Md., the local post office. In July of 1982 the Postal Service notified the Richardsons that it was considering closing down the Claiborne P.O. located in their general store. Ever since, the town has been locked in a desperate, but slow-moving, battle—involving the press, out-of-state benefactors and two members of Congress—to keep it open. Claiborne, the Richard-sons explained, is so small that the store is its only public building, and the rent and salary paid by the Postal Service provided the extra few dollars necessary to keep it solvent. Closing down, Richardson insists, would turn Claiborne "into a ghost town."

When Richardson, a Baltimore artist, bought the one-room, pine-planked general store from 62-year-old "Miss Esther" Jones in 1981, he promised to maintain it the way she had, and the town cheered. A bustling Chesapeake Bay ferry depot in the early 1900s, Claiborne once boasted thousands of visitors each year, four summer hotels, two stores, a garage and even a "preventorium" where sickly Baltimore children could take the healthy bay air. But when the Chesapeake Bay Bridge put the ferry out of business, all the commercial operations in town withered away, leaving the general store as Claiborne's Alpha and Omega. As Esther Jones puts it, "It's all we've got except the church."

From its bureaucratic view in Washington, however, the U.S. Postal Service saw the money-losing Claiborne P.O. mainly as a $6,000-a-year debit. Although it brought in a 1982 revenue of $4,500, the post office cost $10,000 in salary, rental and maintenance.

In December 1981 Miss Esther resigned as postmaster and Martha, who had trained to take her place, waited for the Postal Service to announce a job vacancy. It never did, instead appointing Martha "officer-in-charge," a lower-paying position and, ominously, a temporary one. "And then one day," recalls Martha, 32, "a postmaster from Delaware just came by and said, 'This office is going to be investigated for closing.' " The Richardsons were told that for reasons of cost and convenience the P.O. might be replaced by a rural postal route or "neighborhood box units."

That news, says Richardson, "caused more excitement here than anything since the ferry." When a postal employee came down to inspect Claiborne, she was met in the P.O. by more than a third of the town's population, squeezed in between the Cheerios and the crab pots and waiting their chance to explain why the P.O. must not go. Also present was Claiborne's Congressman, Democrat Roy Dyson, who later proclaimed, "The post office is just too important to these people to take it away from them."

When those sentiments prompted no sympathy from the Postal Service by last December, Dyson took flashier action. He and Louisiana Democrat Lindy Boggs, a descendant of the original Captain Claiborne (who was the region's first English settler), drove the 90 miles from Washington to Claiborne and bought 6,000 Christmas stamps for the cause, a holiday boost of $1,200 for the post office. After also buying a pair of Claiborne T-shirts, Boggs dubbed the store "adorable."

Others apparently thought so, too. Inspired by the congressional example, people all over the country have been ordering Claiborne stamps, and three area law firms have begun buying their stamps there regularly. One ingenious Baltimore woman buys hundreds of stamps and then contributes them to her church as charity. The P.O. has quadrupled its revenues in its last two quarters. "I never would have believed," marvels Jim, 35, "there'd be so much support."

With so much goodwill and new earnings coming in, one could hope that even a bureaucrat's heart would melt. Indeed, Dyson, who has been negotiating with the Postal Service, now says the store is "going to stay open. We pretty much have an ironclad guarantee." But Shirley McDonald, the regional postmaster in charge of Claiborne, insists "there's no final determination," adding that "the revenue that really counts is the revenue from the people in town."

The Claibornites are not yet convinced that the battle is won. "When people ask," says Martha, "we say we're optimistic but we don't know. We've just waited and waited, and we're still waiting. I think it's rude. But then for them, we're just a bother." Richardson is more philosophical. Even if the P.O. survives, he says, "We're some kind of a dinosaur. Small post offices don't fit into the computer part of life. It's sad."

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