As I’ve mentioned, the only two significant entities in Cambridge, ME are the General Store and the U.S. Post Office. I didn’t realize until the night before my trip that they’re next door to each other. Once I was in town, I learned that they’re in the same building, and the USPS rents the space from the owners of the General Store. That sure made things easy for me.
As I studied up on Cambridge, I assumed that the post office would have a special place in town, which turns out to be true, for reasons beyond what I had imagined. The postmaster, Phil Cleaves, has been in the position since April, but he has a long history in the area, having grown up in nearby Dexter. He was able to give me some perspective on the day-to-day of postal business, as well as the importance of a rural post office.
I should note that it hasn’t been straightforward for Cambridge to retain its post office. During a past wave of post office closures, the town needed to petition to retain it, calling on the congressional delegation to lend support. In the end, the post office survived, but hours were cut to four per day, with a morning and afternoon shift on weekdays, and four hours on Saturday morning. Besides the postmaster, there’s a rural delivery route driver, Julie, who covers Cambridge and most of neighboring Harmony. She popped in toward the end of my visit.
As for the post office space, there’s a wall with a few dozen post boxes and a counter for filling out forms, alongside a bulletin board for community notices. Phil said they use an old-school metering machine. Everything that’s needed is there, probably much the same as in decades past.
Here’s what I expected to find: that people would go to the post office more often than city folks because a visit is an opportunity to connect with friends from the town, or maybe only because there are no street-side mail collection boxes to toss an envelope in. Maybe they’d stay and chat a little longer. Both of those things seem to be true. While I was in the office, a customer came by for a money order. Phil asked her how she’s doing and she responded, “I can’t complain. I passed my physical.” A few more minutes of conversation and a request for a bit of tape to hold her envelope shut, and she headed out.
Another customer came by for a book of stamps. She said she and her husband had driven over to the General Store for lunch, a regular destination for them. Phil said that there’s a lot of traffic back and forth between the store and the post office. (Including me — I went from one to the other and back again.)
The first customer’s money order purchase reflects an aspect of post office activity that I hadn’t expected. A lot of Cambridge residents rely on the post office when it’s time to pay bills. Many of those don’t have bank accounts, or for others it may be that the bank is far away and the post office is nearby. So money orders are a significant generator of post office business. In addition, a number of Cambridge folks are earning their living with an online business — selling things on EBay, for example. They frequently need to mail or receive packages, which they do at the post office.
Phil told me that he wished the post office could be open all day, that it’s a “vital service” for a lot of Cambridge residents. He used to be a rural carrier, giving him the perspective from both sides of the office door. “I like to help people,” he said.
Phil has noted changes in Cambridge, thinking back to when there were more businesses and people. With those changes has come a different attitude, which he expressed as “There’s more me and not we.” Nonetheless, he gets along well with his customers and said his approach is to “have a good attitude and hope I get that back.” After our conversation, I came to think that what he misses are the connections that a vibrant town center can provide. Now he and the post office offer one of the key sites for connecting the people of Cambridge, Maine.
How would you describe Cambridge?
People are friendly, very friendly, even if we disagree on some things. Working with the public, you already know how that person feels, so you avoid that conversation and move on to what you’re dealing with. So, in general, people of Cambridge are great. I haven’t had problems with…maybe one person. Maybe two – there was one when I was dating back in high school, so besides her, it’s all been good. And I’m sure Cambridge, Mass. is the same way.