For the first time in her 89 years, Mary Herrick only has to walk several yards out her front door to mail her letters.
Her home on Bath Street is now the backdrop to a new post office box in Alplaus. The boxy ones that you step up to, pull down the lid, and slip envelopes into.
Residents of the tiny hamlet never wanted the convenience.
They wanted to keep their old post office in the center of the hamlet, the one that had been around since 1888 and contained relics of their community’s history — aging photographs on the wall, two hand-painted murals of the homes and fire house and post office lining Alplaus Avenue, otherwise known as Main Street, USA.
“You’d go for five minutes and end up spending an hour,” was how many residents recalled their trips to the post office.
They wanted to keep meeting up every morning to drop off or collect their mail from their own individual cubbyhole. They wanted to keep greeting Kathy Boyle, postmaster of 10 years, sipping coffee and catching up on the latest news.
They never wanted to see its doors close Jan. 6, after a new contract between the U.S. Postal Service and a labor union forced its closure and transferred the work to the Rexford branch.
So on Saturday, about two dozen members of the community met at Samuel’s Café for food and casual conversation and then walked the block to the emptied-out post office, where they shared memories and offered suggestions for the building.
Residents suggested moving artifacts from the building and its murals into the fire house next door, but few had ideas for re-use of the building, which is owned by the Alplaus Fire Department.
Many didn’t know how to answer whether the loss could be filled. But Elizabeth Burke did.
“No,” she said firmly. “What happened was, especially after 9/11, everybody went to the post office. It was just like this security blanket. If you stayed around there long enough, it was just such a warm lovely community that everybody is just sad to see go.”
She worked there part time, filling in for Boyle occasionally.
When Andy Gilpin moved to his new home in the little hamlet in 2005, the seller’s lawyer offered him the best piece of advice he could receive.
“He said, 'Hey, you have to get a post office box at the post office,’” recalled Gilpin, who is now president of the Alplaus Residents Association.
“I don’t know what a post office box even is,” Gilpin told him. “I’ve never had one before.”
The act of socializing at the local post office was never a relic from a bygone era for the residents of Alplaus. Too much had happened there. Too much was shared there to pass it over for modernity.
The little handle on the wooden column by the front steps was still there for Herrick to grab onto and hoist herself up the steps.
“There was a group of us when I first came to Alplaus,” she said. “I lived on Hill Street while we were building our house on Bath Street. And a group of us, we used to meet every morning and we would walk to the post office. And it was just a fun thing to do.”
She would later point out a sepia photo adorning the wall taken in the late 1940s or early 1950s of herself and the hamlet’s most famous residents: the Vonneguts.
Kurt Vonnegut, the American fiction writer who used to work at General Electric, lived with his wife and childhood sweetheart Jane Marie Cox and their daughter Edith on Hill Street. He used to work at the Alplaus Fire House, and urged others in the community to do the same.
Vonnegut also used to write upstairs at Cheney’s, where the post office moved temporarily from 1987 to 1999. And word is he carved his name on the underside of a desk there.
Herrick was good friends with the Vonneguts, and the house they lived in is well known.
“Everybody has a different story about it, about what was meaningful to them,” said Gilpin. “It was really just central to the community. Everybody went there for their mail. Everybody got together there. It was kind of our community center and just a real connection to everybody.”
One resident recalled the days when they used to help out at the post office — something you’d probably go to jail for now, she laughed. Christmas cards used to pour in during the holiday season because stamps were still so cheap, and they’d help sort the mail until 9 at night.
Another resident remembered the dog treats Kathy always kept inside.
One woman met her future husband at the building. She always visited, with no interest in mail whatsoever but for the guy who lived upstairs.
One man recalled a time his daughter and he were driving through another part of Schenectady County. She pointed out the window and asked him what all the black things were next to people’s front doors.
“Those are mailboxes,” he said.
Her reply was instinctual.
“You mean not everybody goes to the post office to get their mail?”