Anne Nix makes NH's floating postal office run

September 12, 2011 - 4:05 AM
Postal Service Dark Days

In this photo taken Thursday Sept. 8, 2011, the M/V Sophie C sits at port in Laconia, N.H. The Sophie C is the nation's only inland floating post office. The Sophie C is the nation's only inland floating post office. If the local post office were to shut own, would anyone miss it? Yes, many people are saying as the U.S. Postal Service is desperate to streamline its operations and save money. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

LACONIA, N.H. (AP) — Aboard the M/V Sophie C. tour boat, Anne Nix serves as deck hand, tour guide and ice cream vendor. And from a small closet packed with canvas bags, a scale and other supplies, she runs the nation's only inland floating post office.

"Even when it rains, you don't have a bad day on the mail boat. How can you have a bad day when you're on the mail boat? You just can't," said Nix, who has spent each of her 58 summers on Lake Winnipesaukee. She works as a nurse and dietitian in Vermont when she's not handling postal duties on the lake from mid-June to mid-September.

That sunny attitude stands in contrast to the gloomy outlook for the U.S. Postal Service. The agency has said that without congressional action, it could run out of money to pay salaries and contractors a year from now.

The White House said Wednesday it may consider giving the Postal Service a few extra months to make a required $5.5 billion payment to the Treasury, but that won't provide a long-term solution.

After losing more than $8 billion last year, the Postal Service is pushing for changes that include reducing mail delivery to five days a week, withdrawing from federal retirement systems to set up its own and closing 3,700 offices.

Five post offices in New Hampshire are among those that will be examined for possible closure, but the Sophie C. isn't one of them.

Nix said federal and state officials assessed its operations two years ago, but made no move toward closing the office. Still, the customers she serves on nine of the lake's islands are worried. Most don't want to see a tradition that began in 1892 come to an end.

At the smaller islands, including one with just a single home, Nix leans off the boat to grab mail bags hanging on posts from the docks. At the larger islands, she ties up the boat and hops off to fill rows of brightly painted mailboxes. Sometimes there are surprises.

"Why did you say, 'Oh, that's a big one!' and shut that mailbox real fast?" a tourist on the boat's roof deck asked her after one stop on Thursday. Answer: a spider.

More welcome are the four-legged critters who hear the boat's horn and race to the dock are island pups who know Nix often has dog biscuits. On warm summer days, children swarm the boat to buy ice cream while their parents collect their mail and hand over packages, letters and bills.

"It's extremely nice to have it. But it's really more of a social scene," said Jan Greer, a real estate agent from Houston who has been coming to Bear Island with her family for 30 years. "The way the island is situated, with the houses just all around the outside, that's sometimes the only time you see people and know they're here."

Greer said she doesn't use the Postal Service much anymore back home. She gets annoyed when businesses don't allow her to make purchases or pay bills online or when the Postal Service messes up her requests to hold her mail. She said she has mixed feelings about whether the government should step in and help.

"I think the world is changing, and the Postal Service needs to change with it," she said.

Tour boat passenger Carole Owen, visiting New Hampshire for a few days from Temple, Texas, agreed that the agency's customer service has declined over the years. But unlike Greer, she still sends lots of mail, including about 10 greeting cards a month, and subscribes to about 10 magazines.

"I still do write letters," she said. "I save letters. It's a history that people today will not have."

Her husband, Ray Owen, a retired pediatrician, said as much as he enjoyed the tour of the scenic lake, he wondered whether continuing the Sophie C. made sense as the Postal Service tries to save money.

"I saw this and thought maybe this is an area they could look at. I'm not trying to denigrate the lake service, but at the same time, if you're trying to save money, there are other ways people can get their mail," he said.

Nix estimates the Sophie C. handled about 28,000 pieces of mail this summer. That's been dropping since she took over in 2003, in large part because Internet access has spread to the islands. There are occasional spikes. She jokes that she hates picking up mail at an island that is home to a summer camp the day after it rains because she knows the girls will have spent all day writing letters.

Beyond her own office, she thinks the Postal Service should consolidate and look into charging people to get home delivery.

"How many things are free anymore?" she said. "People who want to get their mail at the post office have to pay to rent a box."

With just a few days left in the season, not many people were on hand to greet Nix during her rounds Thursday. During her busiest summer days, it can get hectic.

One time, she accidentally dropped a bag of mail into the water and watched it sink to the bottom of the lake. Then there was the time she was left behind on the dock herself.

"Little foibles like that happen," she said. "But you have to enjoy the lake. ... I accept it when it's cold. I accept it when it's raining. I accept it when it's sunny. It's just living on the lake. It's just living."