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By Jules James


RETAIL 101: Gold letters on exterior of glass work better than this.

Lake Union Mail was spawned by a neighborhood newsletter.

Seattle’s sense of neighborhood was under attack in the mid-1980s, after a revised zoning code gave advantages (perhaps unintentionally) to developers – outraging many of us. I was on the board of the Eastlake Community Council (ECC) and we fought hard to encourage good development in the neighborhood. In that effort, we conducted a newsletter survey of what retail businesses were needed. I tabulated the survey. Eastlake’s top three retail needs were:

1) a post office,
2) a bakery,
3) a laundromat.

Meanwhile, developer David Sucher had proposed a new building at the corner of Eastlake and Louisa with ground-floor retail and offices above. The existing 1920s house-like structure once served as a small nursing home and eventually became a not-for-profit center for juvenile delinquents. Few would miss it and Mr. Sucher promised a neighborhood-compatible building. (Shortly after completing the project, Mr. Sucher wrote “City Comforts”, a nationally-acclaimed book about neighborhood-compatible development.)


A busy day in December.

At the time, I was operating a part-time residential recycling business. I’d been interested in the community-building aspects of residential recycling since high school and jumped in when King County proposed a “waste-to-energy” garbage incinerator. After recycling won over burning, I started selling can crushers, recycled paper and other products. Poor Richard’s Recycling turned a profit, but it needed a storefront in order to expand beyond me.
Recycling Continued

The first five gangs of front-loading Salisbury mailboxes were purchased at the St. Vincent de Paul store at South Lake Union two years before LUM opened. (Vinnie’s occupied the whole building that became Yale Street Landing – anchored by Hooters Restaurant. A couple of retired submarines were tied up nearby. It was a hardscrabble waterfront.) Buying and selling second-hand mailboxes evolved into a side-business at LUM and all 12 original mailbox gangs (378 mailboxes) were secondhand. The $2,000 Pitney Bowes 100-lb scale was also a $200 secondhand purchase.

On 6 March 1989, Lake Union Mail (LUM) opened for business in David Sucher’s new building. I designed the store’s layout minus retail experience. I’m not proud of that mistake. David’s architect had only these words to work with: “Ben Franklin should feel comfortable walking through the front door.” Within six months, LUM reached break-even and I stepped down as part-time resident manger at the Yates Apartments to concentrate on recycling and mail.

Lake Union Mail was one of a handful of Seattle residential recycling storefronts in the late 1980s. The niche was in its infancy. We supported each other with combined purchases and the community spirit I had envisioned back in high school. For me, parcel shipping would pay the rent until recycling grew. Then the City of Seattle launched curbside recycling – garbage trucks hauling recyclables. It was a crushing blow to free-market recycling and Seattle’s recycling leaders were pushed out of business. While all others succumbed, LUM survived on mailboxes and postage.

Neighborhood Shopkeeping


Alexander the Crate and Jules.

Shopkeeping is deeper, wider and richer than buying envelopes at a nickel to sell for a dime. LUM mailbox holder Michelle (not her real name) started drinking in Seattle one evening and woke up on a foreign beach. She’d been sober for a year before that. LUM offered her a place of stability through the drinking, the dry-ups, the engagement, the break-up, the beach incident and now marriage in San Diego, sober with that sparkle returned to her eye.

Neighborhood shopkeeping for LUM is colored by college admission applications for the grown-up toddler that once snorted at our funny faces. We participate as witnesses to the completed manuscripts and the publisher’s contract when it arrives in the mailbox. We fax off job offer acceptances and unemployment insurance appeals. We receive mail for deceased parents and notarize domestic partnership agreements. We find appropriate stamps for wedding announcements, collect shipped presents during honeymoons, send baby pictures and forward mail to empty-nest snowbirds – or provide a transition mailbox during the move-onto-the-boat divorce.


Lake Union Mail historic photo display at the inagural Eastlake Shake. (Brita won her camgaign, thanks to us!)

We are the community’s day-to-day eyes and hands on the streets. We’ve helped recover wandering pets, fingered petty criminals, provided assistance to traffic accident victims, unclogged storm drains, handed maps to lost visitors, promoted causes in our front window. We keep a protective watch over nearby Rogers Playfield. We make the sidewalks within sight a safe place for strangers and customers alike.

Neighborhood requires more than happenstance. As shopkeeping wanes under the forces of malls and the Internet, our communities lose those day-to-day public safety eyes. We must creatively replace the public safety role of the retail shopkeeper. Lake Union Mail and a few others cannot thrive as isolated beacons within a dark landscape.

Our Michelle was well behind in her mailbox rent at the time she reached rock-bottom on that unfamiliar sandy beach. Because credit was extended far beyond prudent, a few years’ worth of LUM employees witnessed both her entertaining decline and her steady recovery. Yet another role of the traditional neighborhood shopkeeper – to model the concept of charity as a gift of trust, something more valuable than money.

Recycling Packing Peanuts

LUM accepts foam packing peanuts for recycling (in tied plastic bags, during business hours). Further explanation is necessary, as many customers feel sheepish about a beneficial transaction at no cost. LUM is a member of Associated Mail and Parcel Centers. A national deal was struck encouraging member stores to recycle packing peanuts (some re-package and sell them). Members also won a $1.00 compensation for each UPS, Federal Express and DHL pre-paid drop-off. LUM now has a network of grateful shippers who regularly take surplus packing peanuts (LUM prefers to cushion shipments with paper) and we still get compensated for drop-off packages.

Mail Clerk Resumes

Seattle’s secret rests in its working dreamers. The guy cooking my breakfast is a lead singer, the guy fitting my eyeglasses is writing three books, the gardener is a web designer – it seems that everyone in Seattle has a secret passion they are actively pursuing. It is our city’s core strength. Mail Clerk is not a passion goal. Employees hired at Lake Union Mail – 57 over the past 20 years – want more than just a beer-n-rent paycheck. During their tenures at LUM, some have taken good steps toward their goals, some haven’t. Lake Union Mail has employed international whale researchers, touring rock band members, practicing historians, national championship rugby players, artists, writers, actors and students – all mail clerks.

Isabelle helping Alex with mail-sorting prototype, 2007.

Musician Crhistian Danielson and actor Kaylene French, LUM mail clerks, 1990s.

Sarah Frederick with neighborhood canine. Everyone at LUM commutes by bike, foot or bus.

Lake Union Mail has given short-term employment to incredibly over-qualified folks enduring some bad streaks. We’ve had clerks with degrees from Harvard, newspaper editors and caretakers for the terminally ill. Sometimes the active dream sought is just temporary emersion into LUM’s low-stress reality.

LUM has been a place for family employment as well. Alex James, born January 13, 1995, started in a back office crib, then moved behind the counter. I remember the first stamp he placed crooked on an envelope. It won’t be long before he is working Saturdays solo. Nellie the East Coast niece got her first non-babysitting job at LUM. Stepdaughter Isabelle has spent her high school and college years working the shop.

From the hour-and-wage perspective, it is highly inefficient to subordinate LUM workshift needs to an employee’s personal pursuits. But from a quality perspective, it is our ultimate business advantage. Inbound mail is riddled with mistakes – wrong and missing box numbers and names – requiring familiarity, experience and detective work. Outbound mail choices are based on an individualized balance between speed, accountability, predictability and price. A LUM mail clerk is more than an efficient human robot. That clerk needs to be an engaged interpreter and must be hired with a deferential eye toward passionate dreams.

Champagne to Antarctica

People often want stories about the biggest and weirdest items shipped by LUM. Big and weird tend to be money-losers. We did enjoy packing a champagne glass to survive parachute-delivery in Antarctica. A wintering-over scientist had just been awarded her PhD. Biggest item likely goes to seaplane wing parts off for repair. Most valuable item? The 2008 Presidential ballots. LUM shipped ballots around the globe. One customer waited days in an Arizona border motel not wanting to risk losing his ballot in a shipment to Mexico. There was a universal precious pricelessness to those 2008 Presidential ballots.

Famous customers? LUM doesn’t try to be Postmaster to the Stars. We don’t talk about the stingy rich, the shyly famous, the klutzy athletes or the publicly arrogant rock stars who are really doting fathers and gentle customers. Everyone’s privacy is equally valuable.

Jon Siok, LUM most favorite customer for first 20 years, with wife Toni Roberts.

Through these 20 years, we’ve seen some tough times. In the 1980s, before a treatment for AIDS emerged, LUM packed up far too many personal possessions for shipment home. The Dot-Com Bust wasn’t a shock to LUM since those companies still relied primarily on postage for advertising. But many friends and customers were hurt. The current real estate-inspired depression isn’t ready yet for such historical summation. But developers are laying off staff, shutting down offices, and renting mailboxes. Our FAX machine is working a heated business relaying unemployment insurance paperwork to the Employment Security Department.

Downselling

The constant through all big and weird, famous and rich, normal and oddball at LUM are the strategies of down-selling and cost-pricing. Somewhere, sometime ago, some business school fool promoted “up-selling” – wrenching more dollars out of each customer during each transaction. Price-pointing is a similar buffoon’s idea – pricing up to the point of customer resistance, without regard to the cost of bringing that item to market. LUM follows opposite strategies. We down-sell and we price according to costs. Birthday cards are better mailed for late arrival than shipped by expensive overnight delivery, for example. Customers can expect effective shipping for the least cost. Price-pointing and up-selling both foster an “us-verses-them” sales mentality, which eventually evolves into relationships of disrespect and distrust. “Old fashioned customer service” is a compliment often heard at LUM, where we’re driven by the strategies of down-selling and cost-pricing.

Pink Glass Bowl

There is a hand-blown muted pink glass bowl holding rubber bands at LUM – a “thank you” from an early student of Dale Chihuly. Eastlake was once home to pockets of cheap rental housing for such artists and students. A cluster of shacks, including a couple of waterlogged houseboats pulled up and across the road, occupied the 3100 block of Fairview. John Links, a local developer, purchased the property and planned a 36-unit condominium. Developers function on a 60-days-from-breaking-ground plan. Tenants would rather re-locate than monitor progress of their housing demise. Shopkeepers sell stamps to both. So, assisted by my knowledge of city permit timetables and the developer’s cooperation, LUM acted as liaison between tenant and developer, buying one group of artists and students at least an extra year of cheap housing.

When LUM opened in 1989, Eastlake had at least four significant artist/fringe/student colonies, each since replaced by condos. The 3100 and 1900 blocks of Fairview had beached houseboats. The 1900 block of Eastlake had a cluster of what looked like 1930s migrant worker shacks (with three ceramic pigs overlooking the street, one now hanging at the Zoo Tavern). The Farmhouse at 2500 Yale provided a soundproof basement for bands at the heart of Seattle’s Grunge movement. An office building replaced the twin Victorian houses up the hill in the 1100 block of Eastlake. The Twins were home to a couple of LUM employees and the cultural center for Seattle’s Bubba Mavis school of art.

People often forget that until the late 1960s, the houseboats along Fairview Avenue were low-rent bohemian digs. City Hall actively sought to eliminate these floating slums. Consequently, the landlords who owned the docks and many of the floating homes had little incentive for long-term maintenance. But Terry Pettis – among others – organized the Floating Homes Association, which created stability, re-investment, co-op docks and owner-occupied floating homes. (Terry Pettis Pocket Park is at the foot of Newton Street.) Economic stability-begetting-affluence began moving upland in the 1980s.
LUM can't preserve local housing for artists, musicians and unpublished novelists, but we have a fair number of mailbox holders who are exactly that. The pink glass bowl honors all those pursuing dreams (while holding down a couple of side jobs).

Cell Phones and E-Mail

Kae Kamiya, Jules and Sarah at renovation planning meeting, 2008

In 2007, a mailbox door hinge broke. I’d fixed it before. This time that hinge repair quickly grew into hinge replacement, then to mailbox gang replacement, then to... Eventually, I realized the entire shop needed replacing, re-locating or closing down. Twenty years of uninterrupted commercial use is a long, tough life for most any equipment. LUM had been designed prior to cell phones, e-mails and the Internet. Everything was comfortably decrepit and irretrievably obsolete. So, I hired Jennifer Mallinger, former Yates resident, LUM customer, and interior designer with Starbucks. For months, night after night, she challenged every LUM assumption, arrangement and system. The result was a mailbox prototype that proved perfect.

The new mailboxes with Chris Allegir, carpenter, Jennifer Mallinger, designer, and Jules, March 2009.

Alex and shop dog Scout on the Red Bench, a transformed ladder guard from the old Lake Union Steamplant.

Cabinet carpenter Chris Allegri was midway through an 800-mile walking pilgrimage in Japan when the remodel design was finished. Construction waited for his return. Jennifer created an excellent plan, but Chris had to figure out how to implement it while keeping LUM open during posted hours. He never worked until dawn, but only because dawn comes late in winter.

The concept of the 2008 remodel was to prioritize inbound mail over outbound packages. UPS, FedEx and USPS allow most anyone to download shipping from the Internet. LUM can’t compete with that advertised convenience (except in price). So LUM’s healthy future is in giving life – voice, legs, brain and personality – to a mailbox. The idea that everyone in America dutifully checks an inert metal mailbox six days a week is quaint, but obsolete.

In these new days of cell phones and e-mails, LUM has been re-designed so customers can receive drive-up, curbside mail delivery with a phone call; ask by e-mail if a certain letter has arrived; allow their mail to accumulate during a month of sailing; have their mail forwarded according to customized instruction. The LUM idea is to create an interactive mail service that anticipates more than it reacts. Our expectation is that the future will see residences change more often than mailing addresses.

The interactive mailbox is by no means a new idea. Mail wasn’t always delivered to every door in America. In 1890, Seattle had less than a dozen mail carriers for a population of 43,000. Mail was delivered only to downtown commercial addresses. Officially, everyone else had to ride or walk into the Post Office to receive mail, or contract with a private courier. The populist political initiative of “Rural Free Delivery” in the 1890s fostered our American ritual of checking the mailbox daily.

A visit from the annual Spring Duck. – wife not pictured.

Pre-Rural Free Delivery, the local postmasters dispatched mail for delivery by neighbors, friends and family. For this informal delivery system to function, the local postmaster had to know who lived next door to Earl at the end of Waterton Street; whether the deckhand from M/V Maud was off to work or to the tavern; or if young Billy was still sweet on Sally-Mae and it was best he didn’t to know about the letter from Fitzhough.

With so much needed personal interaction, the local postmaster became a center point for communication, postally, politically and socially. That’s what Lake Union Mail has been doing successfully for 20 years. So, we’ll continue and even expand in those directions. As daily print newspapers evaporate, other community-centering sources must rise up. Expect one of those to be us.

Home to the neighborhood

Over the years, LUM has provided mailing addresses for many shoe-string political campaigns at significant discount (a monorail campaign being our favorite), but only the first is – and will forever be – completely gratis...the survey’s starting point: Eastlake Community Council, 117 E. Louisa St #1, Seattle, WA 98102.

Track UPS, Fed Ex, or USPS Packages
Lake Union Mail
117 East Louisa, Seattle, Washington 98102-3203
Phone: 206-329-1468 Fax: 206-329-3448
lakeunionmail@gmail.com

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