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,
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.)
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cell Phones and E-Mail
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.
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.
117 East Louisa, Seattle, Washington 98102-3203
Phone: 206-329-1468 Fax: 206-329-3448