WASHINGTON PARK — Post office boxes and flat rate mailing envelopes now sit below a collection of second-hand purses at the Community Thrift Store, which began providing some postal services Friday as part of the new Village Post Office program.
The village post office plan was started by the U.S. Postal Service to equip retail stores in communities without a post office, or one that has reduced hours, with the ability to offer basic postal services. The Washington Park post office closed four years ago leaving the nearest post office in East St. Louis, several miles away for most residents.
Community Thrift Store manager Diane Rucker considers the post office outlet, the first of its kind in Illinois and the first in the metro St. Louis area, as an extension of her business.
"We are about community outreach here," Rucker said. "We want to build the community, to help them in any way we can."
The Community Thrift Store sells second-hand merchandise and provides free food to the needy the first Tuesday of each month. The store now also sells forever stamps and provides priority flat rate shipping. Post office boxes were moved to the store from the police station.
Mayor James Jones said the Village Post Office is important for Washington Park because traveling even a few miles can be difficult for residents. "We have poor people who don't have a lot of transportation," Jones said. "This helps us avoid going all the way to East St. Louis."
The Postal Service introduced the Village Post Office concept in 2011.
Loretta Tolliver, marketing manager for the Postal Service's Gateway region, immediately recognized the program as a way to help a neighborhood she was familiar with from growing up in East St. Louis.
"When the program came about, I thought this was something we could do for Washington Park," Tolliver said. "I know the struggles of the community."
Tolliver and Sherry Porter, customer access coordinator for the Gateway region, visited several Washington Park businesses before approaching the Community Thrift Store in October. After several meetings, Rucker and assistant manager Bonnie Bennett became convinced that the service would benefit Washington Park.
"We needed to be sure that it was a benefit to the community," Bennett said. "It was mutual, we needed to determine if it was going to work for us."
The Village Post Office program is one of many efforts the struggling Postal Service is making in an attempt to reduce losses. The Postal Service recently reported a $1.3 billion loss for the first quarter of its 2013 fiscal year. The agency lost $16 billion in fiscal year 2012.
The agency announced plans in 2011 to close nearly 3,700 rural post offices in a cost cutting move. That plan has been stalled by Congress. In 2012, the Postal Service announced that it would reduce hours at some post offices and explore consolidation. The agency recently announced plans to discontinue most Saturday deliveries, but Congress is again intervening, questioning if the Postal Service has the right to make the decision without congressional approval.
Congress passed a law in 2006 requiring the Postal Service to pre-fund 75 years worth of retiree benefits within 10 years. According to the agency's fiscal year 2013 first quarter financial statement, it would have made a small profit without this requirement.
Porter said there are more than 100 Village Post Offices throughout the country, with plans to add another 500 in the next 18 months.
"Right now we are concentrating on small towns that have offices with shortened hours, those open two to four hours," Porter said.
Porter visits the towns to look for a viable business that can host a Village Post Office. A viable business is one that can accept cash, check or charge and one that will not rely on the postal services as their main business. The establishments can sell, but not serve, alcohol.
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