Since my mother-in-law died last year, the vertical post that shoulders our mailbox here in Lincoln has been getting a serious workout. My wife is the executor for her mother’s estate, and so she now receives her mother’s mail. And my mother-in-law, though dead ten months, still gets a lot of mail. Sondra Blewer is not merely still alive in her family’s hearts, she is still alive for no fewer than four or five-dozen non-profits, historical societies, hospitals, and small, unbelievably obscure theater groups. There are also a lot of direct mail marketers that remain convinced they can win back her business. Trust me, they can’t.
My wife has found eliminating her mother’s mail is a great game of Whack-a-Mole. She informs one group that protects whales that her mother has passed away, and another group protecting elephants rears its head. She throws away two solicitations for low-interest credit cards and receives two advertising circulars from drugstores or department stores nearly three hundred miles away.
Now, I am not telling you this because I have anything against wildlife, credit cards, or theaters that host Lithuanian dance troupes interpreting Arthur Miller. I like them all. I am telling you this because close to 100,000 postal workers are likely to lose their jobs in the next four years as the U.S. Postal Service tries to figure out how to remain viable in the digital age. There’s a chance that the processing facility in White River Junction, Vermont will close in May, costing 245 northern New Englanders their jobs.
Here’s the reality: Last year the Postal Service lost over five billion dollars. That’s a lot of money for even Bill Gates, Jay Z, and Lady Gaga – not to mention a business that makes a sizable chunk of its change 45 cents at a time. In the last decade, the percentage of people who pay their bills on-line has climbed from 5 percent to 60 percent. Increasing the cost of a first-class letter to 50 cents would cover only a fifth of that five billion dollar shortfall.
The fact is, of course, that the personal letter sent through the mail was feeling its age well before the Internet made it almost obsolete. Last month, Rick Hampson wrote an absolutely fascinating and beautiful eulogy for the personal letter in “USA Today.” As far back as 1990, I wrote an article for this paper about how archivists’ jobs were changing because no one penned (or typed) letters anymore. These days, finding a personal letter in your mailbox is as rare as a good hair day for Uncle Fester.
Now, I’m part of two industries that are being compelled by the digital age to change at Nascar-like speeds: Books and newspapers. So, I’m sympathetic to the plight of the postal worker. But I also know that we have to live in this world – not another.
And here, right now, are the people who need the postal service: J. Crew, J. Jill, and J. Peterman. So do all those wonderful non-profits that look out for children and whales and colleges. The mail remains a vital part of their marketing plans.
So, perhaps the Postal Service’s fiscal woes can be solved by a business plan that doesn’t revolve around first-class mail, but focuses instead on the people who really need it: Catalog companies, businesses, and fundraisers. They still depend on the mail as an effective advertising medium – and almost nothing can kill an effective advertising medium. They’re like vampires.
Would this make such facilities as the one in White River Junction viable? Let’s see.
Which brings me back to the work my wife is doing and all those envelopes we now get that are addressed to Sondra Blewer. As Jerry Seinfeld’s fictional postman, Newman, observed, “The mail never stops. It just keeps coming and coming and coming! It’s relentless!”
It is. But there will indeed come a day when my wife no longer gets circulars and solicitations addressed to her mother. And I will be sad. In the mail are reminders of who my mother-in-law was and what she loved – which is reason enough to wander out to the mailbox.