Junk mail? Worth every penny.

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.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on March 18, 2012. Chris’s new novel, “The Sandcastle Girls,” arrives on July 17.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

2 thoughts on “Junk mail? Worth every penny.

  1. john kirby says:

    Chris, that was a very entertaining article. But you, and seemingly every other reporting agency, is leaving out one big thing. The reason the post office is losing so much money is because congress has forced them the pre-fund retirements for people who haven’t even started working yet. And they are expected to do it on 10 years. If they didn’t have to do that, they would have made money on the money in the last 5 years during a depression no less. Furthermore, if not a single penny is put in that fund it will be fully funded in the next 20 years on interest alone. I am surprised the experienced journalists, such as yourself, have not dug down and found the real underlying story here and reported to the mainstream market. I hope this gives you cause to take a further look into the post offices real woes and let the American people know what is really going on. That congress, again, is killing a time trusted and valuable service the American people deserve. Thanks for you time and good day.

  2. Ginny Frye says:

    Chris, for your information, it will be many years before Sondra’s mail stops coming to you. My mother-in-law died about ten years ago, and I served as her executor, although much of her mail had already been coming to our Monkton home. When we moved to North Carolina just over two years ago, I thought I had seen the end of Bea’s mail, but no, a piece here and there still arrives, but it now tries to interest her in NC insurance plans, retirement homes and the like. About a year ago, along came an invitation for her to view and possibly join the Tryon Swim Club! I was stunned by this, as I had tried to get some information on joining the pool but was unable to get a contact name and was told by others who had likewise once been interested that the club had a long waiting list, anyway. So, I called the number given, thinking they would be okay with me as a member, certainly preferable to a dead lady. After visiting the pool, I was put on the waiting list, which thankfully was short, and in no time became a member. The very lovely membership chairman was quite unhappy, though, that her invitation had reached out to someone long gone, as the club had paid a pretty penny for a supposedly culled mailing list! I don’t know if she got to the bottom of this, but I bet she sure tried.

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