A big city post office is a large, crowded place where mail is sent and received. But small rural post offices are much more than that to the communities they serve.
They serve as gathering places, where residents pass on news about births and deaths, find out about lost pets or fundraisers to help a neighbor in need. Some offer even more services.
In Graton, Postmaster Roz Simmons lets customers maintain a book and magazine library in the lobby. In Bodega, Postmaster Rob Ramos has turned the lockable part of the lobby into an art gallery. In August, Occidental Postmaster Anita Rackerby hosted a day of Elvis fun, one of three U.S. post offices selected for a special release of the new Elvis Presley stamp. Special envelopes were stamped with a Presley signature, a car show was organized outdoors and patrons were invited to dress up, including one person who came as Marilyn Monroe.
And in Villa Grande, Postmaster Maureen Grant provides the community with a place to share their summer garden produce. “We have a lot of apples to give away right now,” said Grant with a laugh.
The title postmaster is used for both sexes, as retired Bodega Postmaster Glenice Carpenter once quipped, “The government doesn’t pay any of us enough to be mistresses.” Like Carpenter, postmasters all say they develop a special relationship with their customers.
“I was at Valley Ford for years before I came to Graton,” said Simmons. “If there was a problem with the water for example, someone would tell me and I’d call the head of the water company. I served as a secretary for the volunteer fire department and the water company.
“When I came to Graton I was concerned about being accepted, but everyone was welcoming. When they saw I was sprucing up the place, the people from the Community Club came over one day and planted daffodils everywhere outside the post office.”
In Valley Ford, Simmons kept a gum ball machine full of jelly beans for kids. In Graton, she has discovered that doggie treats are even more popular.
Ramos agreed about bonding with his customers.
“The people in Bodega are like a big box of the best apples, not a bad one in the bunch,” he said. “It may be Bodega is a bubble different from the rest of the world, but it’s a happy bubble, and I am happy to be in it.”
Rackerby said she knows all her customers by their first names. “I love the little kids and hand them cards on their birthdays. I get to answer kids’ Santa letters, and even though it is bending the official rules, we help carry out packages for the elderly, the disabled and pregnant mothers.”
Rural postmasters will hand mail over the counter if the elderly or disabled forget their box keys. There is no worry about security because they know each customer personally.
Forestville’s new postmaster, Kerry Adams, comes from Ross, a small town near San Anselmo that sorts mail into post office boxes rather than delivering it to home mailboxes.
Adams said he is still just feeling his way into his new community but already is planning to march in the next Memorial Day parade, part of Forestville’s annual spring fundraising festival for the local youth park.
“The smaller the post office, the more it is a social hub,” he said. “At a small post office you just have to bend the rules.”
Going strictly by the book can lead to trouble. Some 25 years ago, an overly strict Bodega postmaster caused a major uproar by throwing out election ballots because they were addressed to street addresses instead of post office boxes. A customer, who saw them in the dumpster, called the Bodega Bay Navigator to report the incident, but not before the entire fishing fleet had been disenfranchised. Until that year, they always voted by mail because they were often at sea on Election Day.
“You just can’t do things according to the book in a small town post office,” Ramos said. “You can make people so unhappy you can get yourself fired.”
Asked about his ongoing art show, Ramos explained that local artist Annie Murphy Springer suggested it.
“We have to put up a lot of official things, including wanted posters of scary looking people, so she suggested it might be nice to look at something beautiful. I agreed,” he said.
Rackerby also runs a sort of art gallery in Occidental. She displays children’s art, photos customers bring in of their pets and historical photos of the town.