NAHCOTTA, Pacific County – Just like that, with a one-page notice stuffed into the 95 mailboxes, it was over for the little post office here on the Long Beach Peninsula. There was no mincing words.
” … this office has been terminated … ”
For nearly 132 years, until Feb. 27, it had been the meeting place for locals, and the heart of this unincorporated community of maybe 200 named after the Chinook chief Nahcati. Without that post office sign on the window, there really isn’t anything else that said you had arrived in town.
What caused the shutdown was about $600 to $900 a month in added costs, and even that was negotiable.
The U.S. Postal Service, as has been well publicized, has been losing money and shedding post offices, although recently, it has done pretty well during the pandemic. Revenue was up $2.1 billion in the October-December 2020 quarter. Christmas packages! Amazon!
So, when you’re talking billions, the $600 to $900 that led to the closing of the Nahcotta office is small change.
It would have meant better money for Gretchen Goodson, 82, and Kathy Olson, 73, who alternated working six days a week, from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. To save money, the office was only open three hours. They were earning $8.33 an hour.
“I was so stunned,” says Goodson about the closing.
Cate Gable lives in Nahcotta and writes a weekly column for the Chinook Observer. She’s spearheading an effort to save the post office. She says it’s about more than picking up mail:
“Our post office is a place to meet neighbors, to chat about the local news, the weather, to find out who’s sick and who’s better, who has an operation pending, or whose dog has died. It’s a place where funeral notices are posted on the windows, where a bulletin board announced all manner of events and services … board meeting minutes … lost pet flyers, yard sale announcements … ”
Nahcotta was a contract post office, meaning it’s not a stand-alone but within an existing business. USPS had a contract to pay $4,000 for six months to the owner of the large home that had the post office at the front, as well as a now-closed bakery.
That translated to a payment of $662 a month for utilities, insurance, a bond, business license, upkeep and wages.
And that, in turn, translated to $25 for each three-hour shift for Goodson and Olson, which translated to $8.33 an hour. Their pay pretty well used up that $666.66 a month. The minimum wage in this state is $13.69 an hour, but the two women were contract workers with the homeowner.
Olson says the proposed contract meant “a reasonable wage for us.”
USPS spokesman Ernie Swanson emailed that contract post offices are not meant to be profitable for the contractor, but “a means to bring additional customers into their place of business …”
On the website savethepostoffice.com, the project of Steve Hutkins, a retired English professor from New York University, one report is titled “Why does the Postal Service want to destroy the Post Office?”
The real story, he says, is not about how much money the agency is losing or how everybody is using email these days. It is about closing post offices: “It’s destroying a human connection to a place.”
Hutkins says losing a post office is like losing a member of the family – “they even get attached to their ZIP code and worry that without it, their town will ‘fall off the map.’ ”
As much as complaints about the Postal Service are common, it is an institution that matters to the public. A 2019 Gallup poll had three in four Americans saying the Postal Service was their favorite federal agency.
It certainly would be easier to privatize the Postal Service, wrote Hutkins, “When the brick-and-mortar post offices are all gone, people won’t remember that they ever cared about these places.”
Between 1971 and 2020, according to figures from the agency, the number of contract post offices plummeted 56% to 2,803.
In Washington state, between 2011 and 2020, some 40 contract post offices closed, according to figures compiled by Hutkins, based off Postal Service documents. They were places such as a pharmacy, a gift gallery, a gas station, the Paradise Inn at Mount Rainier National Park.
The number of offices around the country run by the USPS itself have taken a hit, too. In that same time period, their number dropped 13% to 31,330.
In this state, according to figures compiled by Hutkins, about 13 USPS-run facilities have been closed since 2008. They include those in unincorporated towns such as Heisson in Clark County and Steptoe in Whitman County.
The Postal Service was never meant to make money when Benjamin Franklin was appointed our first postmaster general in 1775. Its mandate is universal service, meaning it costs the same to mail a letter in Nahcotta as in Seattle.
Hutkins said he wasn’t surprised about the Nahcotta closing, nor the perplexity felt by the locals.
For the contract post offices, says Hutkins, “One of the most maddening things is that the Postal Service always blames the local person and then leaves them hanging.”
Colleen Raftis, a regular visitor to the peninsula, bought the historic building on Sandridge Road in October 2020. She signed an emergency contract to keep the Nahcotta post office going.
But she also had looked at the finances of the post office.
The large home had been in the local Carole and Jack Weigardt family, now both deceased, who ran an oyster farm on the peninsula and bought the residence in 1963.
The existence of the town and the post office are linked in history. In 1889, the year Washington became the 42nd state in the union, a railroad track was laid right to a dock at Nahcotta. Because there was a navigable channel at that location, steamers could land.
The Ilwaco Railroad and Steam Navigation Co., better known as the Clamshell Railroad, for 42 years until 1930 transported everything from oysters to passengers to lumber. And it carried mail to the new Nahcotta post office to be delivered to nearby towns. With the end of the railroad, Nahcotta simply became a little residential area.
In an Oct. 26, 2004, story in the Chinook Observer, Carole Weigardt told of cutting back staffing and hours because the contract money was so small. “I just want to keep the name Nahcotta alive,” she said.
As the contract neared its end the last week of February, Raftis says she ended up talking to Earnest Williams, a Postal Service purchasing and supply management specialist in Aurora, Colorado.
Raftis’ recollection is that she told him she couldn’t afford to keep financing the post office. She remembers Williams responding, “Give me a number.”
“I said, ‘$1,200 to $1,500 would cover everything. Pay employees a decent wage,'” she remembers. “He said, ‘OK, I’ll call you back.'” He didn’t.
Raftis expected some sort of negotiation, not what happened next.
On that Saturday, Feb. 27, Mark Scarborough, the postmaster in Long Beach, 11 miles away, arrived to pack up supplies at the Nahcotta office.
The only items he didn’t get, and probably the most prized, were the 95 old post office boxes. Raftis isn’t ready to hand them over.
She is incensed by the Postal Service note stuffed in those boxes. It said, “The contract that serves this office has been terminated by the supplier. … Unfortunately, no other supplier has been found … we are providing Post Office Boxes at the Ocean Park Post Office … ”
Ocean Park is about 1 1/2 miles away, but the short distance isn’t the point, says Cate Gable. That post office, she wrote, “is commercial, standard-issue and industrial-cold – it’s not a place to hang out for a chat.”
That Saturday, Raftis posted her own note:
“The U. S. Postal Service would like you to believe that I chose to terminate the contract. … This is simply not true. … What a shame that big government can find no value in or time for a beloved, historic, little post office that has been serving the community … ”
A voicemail message for Williams was not returned. Scarborough says he was not involved in the decision and could not comment.
Swanson, the Postal Service spokesman, emailed that the agency has a formula for how much to pay contract post offices, “based largely on how much annual revenue they generate for the USPS.” He said the formula was “proprietary,” and so was how much revenue the Nahcotta post office generated.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, the Republican whose 3rd District includes the Long Beach Peninsula, on March 4 sent a letter to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy asking for a delay of the closing until “you’ve explored all of the viable options.”
DeJoy is the Republican and Trump campaign megadonor who’s created controversy for the changes he’s made at the agency, including removing mail-sorting machines.
Herrera Beutler told DeJoy about the possibility of moving the Nahcotta post office about two blocks to the Willapa Bay Interpretive Center run by the Port of Peninsula.
Jay Personius, its executive director, says the year-round heated facility could easily accommodate the post office and it’d be an easy move.
Herrera Beutler’s office says she hasn’t heard back from DeJoy.