Early morning commuters stopping at Larkfield’s Highway Espresso can now get a book of stamps or mail a letter while ordering the drive- thru’s signature “Highway Jolt” coffee drink.
Over in Roseland, customers at La Famiglia Deli can mail a package while ordering a “Warm Leo Ray” pastrami and mushroom sandwich.
And at Cloverdale Pharmacy, a limited menu of postal services is available along with prescriptions, health aids and souvenirs.
The three Sonoma County businesses are part of the new face of the U.S. Postal Service, which is searching for ways to reduce costs and increase revenues as the volume of mail declines. This summer, it debuted its first “Village Post Offices” in Sonoma County, a concept created in 2011 to provide access to postal products and services in rural communities where post offices were being closed. Today, there are 700 across the United States.
“It is certainly more convenient,” said Santa Rosa Postmaster Michelle Tucker. The program, she said, offers consumers more locations and different hours of operations from their local post offices.
Since 2006, the volume of mail processed by the Postal Service has fallen 25 percent to 1.75 billion pieces a year, spokesman Augustine Ruiz said. In response, he said, the Postal Service has closed some post offices and reduced hours at others. As well, about half the nation’s mail processing centers have been slated for closure in the past two years. Among them is the Petaluma mail processing facility, which despite community protests is scheduled to close early next year.
The Village Post Office program now includes six retailers in a coastal region stretching from Palo Alto to the Oregon border. Besides buying stamps, customers can obtain and mail priority packing envelopes and boxes.
Fred Besio, owner of the pharmacy on South Cloverdale Boulevard, noted that he can’t accept international packages. As well, packages with liquids have to be mailed at the regular post office.
However, he said, “The post office is closed Saturday, but we’re open to get stamps.”
For each of the businesses, the Postal Service also installed a big blue mailbox for mailing letters.
The business owners said they hope the arrangement will prove a valuable service and draw in new customers.
“We want to expand and reach more of our neighbors,” said Martha Johnson, who with her husband, Mario Vasquez, owns the deli on Sebastopol Road. She wants customers to think of her place when they wonder, “Where I can drop my package early in the morning or late in the evening?”
The Postal Service for years has allowed local retailers to sell some of its products. About 65,000 retail outlets sell stamps. Today, about 40 percent of all postal retail business now takes place outside of a regular post office, said Ruiz, including sales made at USPS.com.
In response, the union representing postal workers is pushing back against what it sees as the growing privatization of postal duties.
“What is the Village Post Office accomplishing?” asked Sally Davidow, a spokeswoman for the American Postal Workers Union in Washington. “It’s taking work away from the public post office.”
The postal workers union made news last month in its ongoing battle with office supplies retailer Staples, which provides certain postal services at its stores. In an ad in Harvard University’s student paper, the union called on Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust either to resign her seat on Staples’ board of directors or use her influence to end the store’s postal services program.
Postal Service spokesman James Wigdel defended the Village Post Offices as “an innovative step toward generating revenue to ensure the long-term viability of the Postal Service.”
“The Postal Service continues to face declining first-class mail volume and therefore must continue to adapt to the demands of our customers to retain and grow our revenue base,” Wigdel wrote in an email.
Desiree Parlo, owner of the Highway Espresso on Old Redwood Highway, said she doubts the postal service is going to go away because she takes part in the new program.
Parlo, whose store is open daily from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m., said she takes seriously the duty to handle her customers’ mail. She said she made sure to get adequate training “so they’re confident in giving it to me.”