The value of a P.O. Box in a digital world

I don’t typically share my list of pet peeves 1 as it just gives ammo to those who would get a kick out of annoying me. But I will share one: When someone wants to send me something and asks me for my address.

Now you may think that this a weird pet peeve. Shawn, they want to send you something! Why get bothered? Well, it’s because I put my mailing address on pretty much everything. Yes, it’s on this blog, though you need to actually be looking at the actual thing, not via a reader. (If you are looking at a post on the blog, it’ll be in the right sidebar, under “Write Me!”) It’s in the signature of every email I send, and somewhere on every postcard or publication I’ve made, ever. Ok, I know people aren’t always looking for these things, as easy as I make it available. I get that. But it still frustrates me.

And to answer your next question, which would be along the lines of “Well, maybe Shawn moved, and I want to make sure I have the right address.” Yes, I have moved, many times. But it doesn’t matter. The address I give is a Post Office Box, which I have had for nineteen years as of this month. No matter how many times I’ve moved around Portland in the time I’ve lived here (and I have a lot), my postal address has remained supremely consistent. That is by design. Having a P. O. Box means I can limit who knows my actual address, as I’ve had a few weirdos and stalkers over the years.

It’s silly, but I’m a bit proud of my ownership of a P. O. Box nearing two decades. I’ve had so many things in flux in my adult life, it’s nice to have some form of stability. It’s also nice to think that if someone found a copy of Proliferation, a comic I did in 2004, if said person decided to write me, I’d still receive that missive. 2 Sure, the likelihood is low, but it’s nice to think that a channel is still open.

P. O. Boxes don’t seem to be that big of a deal anymore, with online communication outnumbering physical by a wide margin. But in 2002, when I received my keys, it was still a thing, especially amongst zinesters like me. When I moved to Portland in April of 2001 I immediately tried to rent a box, but they were sold out of them at all the central stations. Instead I got the next best thing, a PMB, which were much easier to find.

For those outside of the US, a PMB stands for “private mail box” and they are located in for-profit business outside of the Post Office. Most often they are found at “mailing centers” like the UPS Store or Postal Annex, places that offer postal services alongside shipping via UPS, FedEx, and other carriers. (Services generally at a markup, I should add.) PMBs are often used by businesses since they have a “street address” instead of simply a box number. This gives two distinct benefits: It allows shipment of non USPS/Post Office letters and packages (you can’t get FedEx at your P. O. Box) and also fools some into thinking a biz has an “office” at this location. I’ve worked in three mailing centers over the years, and it was almost a daily occurrence when someone would show up looking for the owner of a certain PMB, thinking they’d be there. And we couldn’t give out the person’s actual address, no matter how irate this person was, unless the person was law enforcement.

On paper, PMBs look like a better deal than P. O. Boxes: often cheaper, more locations, ability to get deliveries from other services. But there is a big catch: There is no automatic forwarding of mail if you decide to close your PMB. Y’see, when PMBs became a thing around the 1970s due to a P. O. Box shortage, the USPS basically “washed its hands” of certain things it was obliged to do with P. O. Boxes, one of them free mail forwarding. If you close a PMB and still want to get mail from that address, or have it go to a new location, you have to pay the mailing center a fee plus postage for doing so. And the mailing center decides the rate. This is all in the fine print when one signs the PMB agreement, but most folks didn’t pay attention. So they would come into the mailing center where I worked with a USPS Change of Address form. I’d tell them that it wouldn’t work, but they’d send it in anyway, and it would get immediately returned to them. They’d then sheepishly ask to set up a forwarding service.

And in the instance where the mailing center goes out of business? USPS won’t budge on forwarding, they’ll return it all to sender. Now most of these mailing centers are corporate franchises and have every intent on staying in business. But there are those that were done as more of a lark. Abbacy Post, my mailing center job in 2002, was one of those: attached to a furniture store on SE Hawthorne, the owner thought it’d be “cool” to have a little post office. Then he decided that he didn’t want to deal with it anymore (though by that point I pretty much ran it by myself) so he closed it at the end of the year. And one of those PMBs was mine! I had to scramble if I still wanted a mailing address.

Thankfully, East Portland Station Post Office had a box available. I preferred getting one at the Main Post Office downtown, the big choice for zinesters and the like due to the 24/7 lobby. 3 But beggars can’t be choosers, and East Portland Stn. was plenty central, meaning no matter where I ended up in the city, it would be on the route to somewhere. I signed the contract, and nineteen years later, P. O. Box 14185, Portland OR 97293 is still my postal address.

And I’m going to keep this P. O. Box as long as I can, despite it all. The volume of mail I receive is maybe a quarter of what I’d get in 2003. Blame that on my decreased participation in the zine world and the increase of online communication. It still means more when I get a postcard or letter than an email or Instagram message. And yeah, I’d like to get more stuff in the mail (hint, hint.)

Less mail volume is one thing. Increased fees is another. I remember that it was around $60 a year for my P. O. Box when I opened it. Now the current rate is $134. That’s an increase more than simple inflation. I get it to some extent: the USPS has been criminally underfunded over the years, and incompetent leadership (hello, DeJoy) ain’t helping. But it still stings. And while the regular increases in fees give me pause, I’ve had it so long I don’t want to think about what to do without one. A couple times I’ve had the thought of switching my P. O. Box to a station closer to my house with nicer staff. 4 But again, the idea of changing my address would be too much of a chore.

So I’ll be keeping my P. O. Box. The big hope is to have it as long as I live in Portland, and I don’t intend to move any time soon. So write me! It’ll still get to me, even if it takes ya a year to getting around to it.

1 Okay, here’s one: The use of “rad” by anyone over the age of 12. I love a lot of things about the West Coast, but the normalization of skate/surf lingo isn’t one of them. “Rad” has even started moving east, and I can’t understand, since we have the superior “wicked” instead.

2 That would not be the case if they tried to email me. My hotmail email, the one most likely in there, has been dead since at least W’s second term. Though one of my scribble addresses still works as a redirect, surprisingly enough.

3 East Portland had a 24/7 lobby for a hot second about ten to twelve years ago. Now the lobby is open even less than it was in 2002: Basically bankers hours during the week and a bit on Saturday.

4 East Portland’s had its share of grumpy counter jockeys over the years. Thankfully since I can do most of my postage at home I don’t have to deal with them as much as I used to.

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