A few weeks ago, I cruised through the parking garage next to , looking for a parking space. I had come to pay my bill for water, sewer and trash service.
I finally snagged a space and went inside, hoping the line would not be too long. When I saw that there were a half dozen people ahead of me, I silently asked myself, “Why do I do this? Why don’t I just mail in my payment?”
The short and simple answer is, “This is what I signed up for when I moved to Leesburg.”
When my wife and I were considering our move from Southern California to Leesburg in the late 1980s, Leesburg really was a small town – less than 20,000 residents – rather than the still-growing exurb it has become. Having lived my entire life in suburbs, college towns and small cities, I was attracted by the notion of living and working in a true small town.
I especially liked the idea of conducting my personal business downtown, within walking distance of my office in the county administration building.
During my lunch hour, I could walk to the bank and still have time to grab lunch. I could pay my town and county taxes in person. I could walk a few blocks and pay my cable television and utility bills. My doctor and dentist had offices downtown. Even my church was just a few blocks away.
And yes, if I needed to buy stamps or mail a package, I could walk to the downtown post office.
I liked the idea of saving on fuel by running such errands on foot. It seemed wasteful to buy a stamp to mail in a payment when I could walk a few blocks and pay it in person. After sitting most of the day, it felt good to stretch my legs and get some exercise.
I also grew to enjoy the small, face-to-face encounters that accompanied these transactions. The people who worked in the various downtown offices became familiar, friendly faces, even if I didn’t always know their names.
Walking the downtown streets was usually a pleasure. Sometimes I would stop three or four times to chat with someone I knew. At times like that, I really felt a sense of belonging – of being part of the fabric of downtown Leesburg.
Over time, some things changed. My bank closed its downtown branch, to be replaced by restaurant. My doctor’s office moved to Lansdowne. I switched cable companies, and now pay that bill electronically.
The biggest change is that I no longer work in downtown Leesburg, so I have to make more of an effort to go downtown to conduct business. Parking can be a challenge.
I pay many of my bills online now. But I have stubbornly held onto a few transactions that I like to make with real people, face-to-face. I use ATMs as little as possible and completely shun drive-through lanes of any kind.
These preferences came to mind when I learned that Leesburg’s downtown post office had been placed on a list of postal branches that . Although it appears to have a temporary reprieve, there is still the possibility that it could eventually close.
I hope that doesn’t happen. Leesburg’s post office is a vital part of its downtown, just as they are in small towns across America. When we weigh costs and benefits of keeping postal branches open, how do we account for the intangible value of those essential elements of a downtown that make it a living, working community?
I don’t like standing in line any more than most people do, and try to time my errands to avoid long lines. But I can think of several occasions when I have encountered people I knew while waiting in line at the post office, and had pleasant, even productive conversations.
Earlier this month, when I took my place in line to pay my utility bill at Leesburg Town Hall, I saw that several people ahead of me seemed to be together. They appeared to comprise three generations of a Hispanic family – an older couple, a young mother, and two little girls, perhaps three and four years old.
The older couple immediately stepped aside and motioned me ahead. They evidently didn’t need to be standing in line ahead of me.
The little girls suddenly pointed down the hall and placed their hands over their mouths in excitement. A young woman was approaching, pushing a stroller.
“A baby!” one of the girls exclaimed. “Look at the pretty baby!” They approached the stroller and gazed adoringly at the baby, whose mother was beaming at their reaction. “Mama, look at the baby!”
“Que linda!” said the older members of the family, admiring the baby. The little girls were beside themselves with excitement.
Then one of the girls noticed me towering above her, gazing down at the scene, and she gave me a big grin. I smiled back at her and nodded in agreement, “How pretty!”
If I remember nothing else about that day, I will remember that scene.
Moments like that remind me why I still insist on conducting business in person, face-to-face, in downtown Leesburg.