By MARY CALLAHAN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
CAMP MEEKER — The tiny public alcove at the local post office was crammed with people Tuesday — folks packed in tight but still chatty, smiling and glad to be home.
After a six-month displacement from the humble trailer that for two decades has served as post office and community center for the forested hamlet of about 425, the public was welcomed back Tuesday with a pledge that discussions about closing the post office for good had been abandoned.
But the restoration of operations comes with a trade-off: At some point next year, service hours will be halved.
Cost-cutting remains the only feasible way to keep the doors open in an age of budget reductions, postal service spokesman James Wigdel said.
“I would say some time early in 2014, but we don’t have an exact date for that yet,” he said.
But for the 30 or so people who braved a cold, damp morning to mark the reopening Tuesday, what seemed important was that the post office was reopened again.
“It’s kind of been a struggle,” said Lynn Watson, who serves on the five-member Camp Meeker Recreation and Park District board. “I’m happy for today.”
“Our village doesn’t have anything else besides this post office,” said Katy Henriksen. “We take pride in our post office.”
Residents describe the corrugated metal trailer at the edge of an asphalt lane off Bohemian Highway as the heart and soul of their remote community, located in the shade of redwoods about two miles from Occidental.
Decades after the loss of such fixtures as a bowling alley, a dance hall and the permanent post office that now lies in decay, it remains the community hub — a place to greet friends, trade news and, yet, pick up the mail.
A bank of vintage post office boxes that once had combination dials include a broken one that former postal clerk Val Larson stocked with stickers and sometimes candy for local children.
“It was the kids’ box,” she said. “They loved checking the mail.”
“I am new to Camp Meeker. Everybody I know here I met here at the post office,” said Argentinian Eva Neufeldt, who moved to west Sonoma County by way of West Hollywood last year.
So Neufeldt was aggrieved when she went to Israel for three months and returned to find the post office shuttered after several years of discussions about whether it might be closed down.
The Postal Service, faced with steeply declining revenues, had included the Camp Meeker post office on a list of about 3,700 facilities nationwide that were to be evaluated for possible closure as a means of offsetting billions of dollars in losses.
Camp Meeker has no home mail delivery, and many of those who call it home are elderly or disabled, residents say. Others are simply accustomed to ambling down to pick their mail up and engage in bit of community building.
Their campaign to preserve the post office, with support from freshman Congressman Jared Huffman, persuaded San Francisco District Manager David Stowe to permit the facility to remain in operation for four hours a day.
Just how that would be managed was still under debate last June when mold and other structural issues were linked early last summer to a leaky water pipes, resulting in the abrupt closure of the post office.
The postal service at that point considered closing it down permanently before deciding to make modest repairs that would permit it to reopen, Wigdel said.
“I really thought we were sunk,” resident Gretchen Hughes said Tuesday. “I really did.”
In the meantime, residents were sent to Occidental to get their mail, requiring that they wait in line and creating a hardship for those for whom travel is a challenge, residents said.
It also created an unexpected impact for the staff there, Stowe said. In fact, the added burden at the Occidental Post Office was in part what persuaded him to reopen Camp Meeker, he said.
Huffman on Tuesday praised the community for strongly and clearly communicating their needs so that he could take action to help arrange meetings, and for “being a part of a problem-solving process.”
“For a small community, this is a big deal,” said resident Scott Nickel.
“I think it’s quite a big deal,” said Paul Smith, also a nearby resident. “It’s always been a place where you meet friends and neighbors, and meet new people to the community.”