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Smalltown Alplaus post office inspires movie

Smalltown Alplaus post office inspires movie

Director of new movie "Colewell" was interested in post office closures and found Alplaus
Smalltown Alplaus post office inspires movie
Kathy Boyle stands in front of the gazebo where the Alplaus Post Office used to be Friday.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

ALPLAUS -- Alplaus didn't lose its community identity when the post office closed nearly a decade ago, but lots of people here feared it might.

It's a story a lot of little rural communities across the country could tell about feeling threatened by a changing world -- and now lots more people will learn a little of the Alplaus story, if in fictional form.

The closing of this tiny Schenectady County hamlet's post office -- a real-life story of no longer having the chance to "bump into people" over mailing packages and buying stamps -- has helped inspire an independent movie that will come out on streaming services this week.

"Colewell" tells the story of how the closing of a tiny Pennsylvania community's post office affects the community residents and marks a crossroads in the life of the postmaster, played by actress Karen Allen, best-known as the female lead in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in 1981, but a steady presence in movies and television ever since.

"I don't think he based the character on me at all," said Kathleen Boyle-McGarry, the Alplaus postmaster from 2002 until the closing in early 2012.

But a lot of other things about Alplaus are in the movie. Alplaus has only a few hundred residents and no restaurants or cafes, so the post office was where people got together, and that's what the post office in the movie is like.

Writer and director of the movie, Tom Quinn, said Alplaus was definitely an inspiration for the community the movie portrays, and he seriously considered filming there, though shooting ultimately took place in Noxen, Pennsylvania, a town of barely 600 people in the mountains north of Wilkes-Barre.

The movie's concept of the post office as the center of the community is drawn directly from Alplaus, where community residents fought hard, though ultimately unsuccessfully, to keep the U.S. Postal Service from closing what was, for many people, the local community center. The post office, which was only open five hours a day, closed in January 2012.

“What we took from Alplaus is the idea, as one resident said, that it was like the town's living room, and we really took away a lot of that," Quinn said.

"Colewell" -- the name of the fictional Pennsylvania town where Allen's character runs the post office -- is the second feature film for Quinn, who is director of the film and video program at Drexel University in Philadelphia. His previous feature was "The New Year Parade" in 2008.

Though not yet in wide release, "Colewell" has already been nominated for some independent movie awards, including a best female lead actress nomination for Allen in the Film Independent Spirit Awards. The film has been nominated for an Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award, for artistic accomplishment on a small budget.

The tale of how a tiny but historic community got matched up with a professional filmmaker goes back to the community's David vs. Goliath fight to its keep its post office open (except that this time Goliath won).

Before the closure, there had been a post office in Alplaus, which is in the town of Glenville but sits close to the Saratoga County line, for more than 90 years. That's why, in the 1960s, Alplaus got its own zip code, 12008.

The post office moved a few times over the years, but the final post office was on Alplaus Avenue, next to the fire station. It was operated under a contract rather than being government-owned. In the fall of 2011, the U.S. Postal Service was closing hundreds of contract post offices as part of its response to a contract settlement with the professional postal workers' union. Alplaus was on the list. Residents fought back; a large "Save Our Post Office" banner hung in front of the building for months.

"This was a very stressful and sad situation for Alplaus residents, and even for those outside Alplaus who understood how important the post office was to our hamlet," Boyle-McGarry recalled.

Similar situations were happening across the country. National Public Radio did an interview with Evan Kalish, who was doing research on postal closures and their impacts on communities. Then-president of the Alplaus Residents Association Andy Gilpin heard the interview and contacted Kalish, inviting him to visit Alplaus, which he did. Kalish wrote articles and took photos, but none of it stopped the closing.

Kalish stayed in touch with Boyle-McGarry after that, and in June 2015 he emailed her to tell her about a film director interested in postal closures and their impact, and suggest she get in touch with him.

At the time, Quinn had heard from a friend about the closing of a post office in western Pennsylvania, and how without a post office it lost much of its identity. He made contact with Kalish, and as the idea for a movie evolved, went to visit 22 communities where a post office was being closed -- though, in many instances, in the end they merely had their hours reduced.

Alplaus, though, wasn't like most others, and Quinn realized that when he came to visit in the summer of 2015.

"Alplaus was different in that Kathy really set up a town hall meeting (at the fire house) for us, and we really got a sense of what it meant to the community," Quinn said.

Some of the details Boyle-McGarry or community residents told Quinn about made it into the film. A microwave accessible in the lobby serves as an innovative place to hide packages when residents can't get to the window before closing time. "That gets a laugh," Quinn said of audience response.

The movie post office also has a jar of dog treats, just like the real one. "We had a people cookie jar and a dog cookie jar, because a lot of people would walk to the post office, and people would bring their dogs," Boyle-McGarry recalled.

She took Quinn into the empty post office, an experience she recalled as very emotional. (The building's fate was precarious for several years; the Alplaus Fire Department bought the land, and the deteriorating building was demolished in 2017.)

"In these kinds of places a lot of residents are senior citizens, they might not drive, but it’s a place they can go to and it’s kind of like their living room, their common space," Quinn said.

After his visit, Quinn developed the script, and was able to persuade Allen, who lives and owns a knitware business in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to take the role. After visiting Allen in December 2016, he came back through Alplaus for the annual holiday cookie swap, still thinking he might film there.

"“Even though we went to a lot of places, Alplaus was really kind of the heart of it," Quinn said.

The movie was eventually filmed in Pennsylvania because of available tax credits there, and to be closer to Quinn's Bucks County home.

Quinn and Boyle-McGarry stayed in touch by email over the next couple of years, but she didn't say much to anyone else, reasoning that a lot more movies get talked about than ever get made. "When he sent an email letting me know he had the financing, I remember how excited I was," she said.

So far, Boyle-McGarry has only seen the film's trailer, though she has ordered the full movie, which is for pre-sale on iTunes and Amazon. "Watching the movie trailer gave me goosebumps," she wrote in a narrative for the community. "It was surreal to see the Karen Allen character receive the letter of closure of the post office, the post office boxes looking so much like ours, the community gathering at the post office for conversation -- it's us!"

"Tom managed to capture the essence of our community," she wrote. "He had truly felt our loss and deeply understood what the community post office meant to us. I can't wait to see the complete movie."

The movie is due for release on Friday, Dec. 13, via on-demand cable, including Comcast, Fios, Amazon and XBox. It is scheduled to reach Showtime in March.

The Alplaus Residents Association, which for years has directed much of its energy at trying to preserve the small community's historic identify in a rapidly changing world, is talking about arranging a community screening at the fire house at some point in the future.

One nice thing in terms of maintaining community identity is that Alplaus didn't lose its zip code, though the mail now comes by rural delivery driver from the Rexford Post Office.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

 

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