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The vanishing Post Office (part II)

Kew-postoffice-2021.JPGBack in 2014, a big red van rolled up outside the post office around the corner, packed it up, and drove it away. After months of uncertainty, that local post office (or, more correctly, *sub* post office) was reinstalled in a centrally located newsagent in Kew village.

Peace has mostly ensued.

Over the years, however, the subpostmaster in charge of it has become visibly and increasingly frustrated as its income continued to drop. Several years ago, he began talking about selling up, if only he could find a buyer. He was closed for some months early in the pandemic, and, although he did reopen, it was with shorter hours. Now, I hear he'll be gone come New Year's, and it will all be the new buyer's problem. I don't know what the buyer will put in its place, but it sounds like it won't be a post office. It may not even be a newsagent, in which case the village's only surviving place to buy a newspaper will be the shop in the station, down from three just a few years ago.

Now, if you want to look at this little story as a pure question of efficiency and available service, you will probably point out that there is a perfectly good, larger, and fuller-service post office barely a mile away in Richmond, reachable by foot, bike, or frequent bus. (You can drive, but you can't park.) However, the main point is that 30 years ago Kew had a full-fledged Post Office in its own solid building (which has long since been remodeled into a pizza restaurant) and now it won't have one at all. And while Kew will survive as a community, the same is not true for many other places that are less favored. In April 2019, the National Federation of SubPostmasters predicted that 22% of post offices around the UK would close or downsize over the next 12 months; our retiring guy is one dot in this expanding nationwide pattern.

The even larger point is that the loss of our post office isn't due to a carefully thought-out plan for reorganization or changed ideas about what communities need in order to remain worthy of the name, but the result of terminal frustration for the subpostmaster. It is alienation and attrition.

Some other statistics from that 2019 survey. The NFSP found that 76% of subpostmasters were earning less than minimum wage per hour from their post office work; 61% reported their income had dropped; and 19% needed an outside job for themselves or their spouse/partner in order to survive. Can't-wait-to-retire showed me the survey, which is currently being rerun.

All of that is without the recent scandal in which hundreds of subpostmasters were prosecuted for fraud based on the output of buggy software; 39 convictions were quashed.

No wonder they're quitting.

It's easy to blame the Internet and email, but it's not that simple. Yes, the Internet cut deeply into personal correspondence, but so did government decisions such as the drive to switch to direct electronic benefits payments - still ongoing - and the digitisation of services like passport and car registration renewals that local post offices used to provide. In addition, since 2006 the postal market has been opened to competition, the Royal Mail was privatized and, in 2013, floated on the stock exchange while the nation's post offices were segregated into the subsidiary Post Office Limited. Competition has enabled cheap, convenient services to flourish, but has also creamed off the most profitable parts of package delivery.

Ultimately, the problem is that today's communities were built around services like banks and post offices that at one time were community hubs but are now outposts of national or even international businesses. In this version of globalization, local communities hollow out because the social infrastructure that underpins them vanishes or loses its local face. It's the difference between living in a real place and picking a convenientish bedroom you can afford.

Some time ago, the Scottish government began studying the country's towns and came up with three main types: independent, dependent, and interdependent. An independent town has enough services that residents don't need to go elsewhere for daily needs such as jobs, doctors and dentists, retail shopping, and public sector services. A dependent town's residents can't function without traveling elsewhere to meet their basic needs. An interdependent town is somewhere in between. It's not all about population or location: St Andrews, Fife, population 16,870, is an interdependent town; the remote northern town of Thurso, population 7,933, is independent (it has to be!); and Houston, west of Glasgow in Renfrewshire, population 6,396, is interdependent to dependent.

As I understand it, the idea of looking at towns this way is to work out how to ensure that as many locations as possible remain viable and help boost those that are struggling. Maybe study will show that post offices, like many churches, don't matter any more and what communities need in today's world is something else - broadband-supplied virtual reality hubs, or communal kitchens. But as all the traditional community hubs disappear or are severely cut back - post offices, libraries, youth clubs, leisure centers - we need that kind of study. It's really not enough to just say, "Oh, there's another one down the road a piece - and there's an app!"

Illustrations: The soon-to-be-gone post office sign.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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