Nylia Swanson jokes that she is the Blanche DuBois of small-town postmasters. She takes advantage of the kindness of strangers, most residing many miles and ZIP Codes away.
The white-haired great-grandmother runs her tiny rural outpost with military precision. Each day at 7:45 a.m., she stoutly hoists the small American flag up the pole outside her door. Peering through her customer-service window, she cheerfully dispenses stamps, envelopes and labels. She manages a wall of tidy postal boxes and calls customers at home if a letter looks important.
And she works her dog-eared Rolodex, which contains more than 100 names of loyal purchasers who live in such places as Alabama and New York but buy their stamps, via mail, from Swanson in Keeler.
Swanson lives in a town on its last legs, a once bustling Owens Valley mining community whose post office, opened in 1883, now serves only 50 mostly elderly souls. These days, the only things for sale in Keeler are Swanson’s postal supplies. And residents fear the post office, the focus of the isolated desert town’s fragile social life, might one day close as well.
At 72, Swanson is waging a homespun one-woman campaign to keep her office open and her tiny town on the map. Mixing the folksy forthrightness of a cold-calling saleswoman with the heartstrings tug of a Jerry Lewis telethon, she promotes the Keeler post office (ZIP Code 93530) as the spot for one-stop mail shopping.
She pitches the post office to all her friends and relatives and encourages locals to do the same. She spreads the word when she’s on vacation, on the telephone, giving blood in a nearby town.
“We’re a little post office, and people know we need all the help we can get to stay in business,” Swanson said. “And if they don’t know, I’m happy to tell them.”
As with many rural post offices nationwide, Keeler’s future remains unclear. “Sometimes towns dry up and people move away,” said Rich Maher, a U.S. Postal Service spokesman. “There’s not even a gas station in Keeler to pull people off the road. In the past, small postal branches like this one have consolidated with other towns. So they’re working hard to keep their doors open.”
For Keeler residents, the post office is much more than just a place to pick up their mail.
Rumbling up in his dusty pickup, Andy Morris, 74, said many folks are too old to travel to the next nearest postal branch, 13 miles away in Lone Pine. Even if they could, they probably wouldn’t, he said.
Half of Keeler’s 119 postal boxes sit empty. But the post office remains a critical meeting place in a town where residents rarely knock on doors to say howdy. “I’ll take my neighbor some eggs or feed her pigs when she goes away, but most of us see each other right here,” he said.
If the post office isn’t just a post office, Swanson isn’t just postmaster, either. She’s the town’s social switchboard operator, keeping folks abreast of news and gossip -- who’s sick, who’s having a birthday, whose house is for sale and for how much, what’s the latest on plans for the annual “Spring-a-ma-jig” in nearby Darwin.
And Swanson is always scouting for a sale. Some tourists get her pitch when they wander into her post office while en route to Cerro Gordo, the nearby mining ghost town, or to Death Valley, 65 miles away down a winding highway.
Careful not to poach customers from other struggling post offices nearby, she figures that most out-of-staters are fair game. So are any people named Keeler, who have a soft spot in their hearts for this particular little post office.
Faye Keeler happened on the town while on a vacation a few years back. Now she wouldn’t think of buying a stamp anywhere else.
“I don’t know why I want to order from there, but I do,” said the 76-year-old retiree from Alabama. “I like the idea of helping to keep this little place open. The town is mostly dead. We couldn’t find anyone there until we happened upon the post office.”
Once Swanson has corralled her customers, she keeps them in the fold with folksy seasonal fliers. Why wait in line at your crazy-crowded local post office, she asks, when you can buy your stamps stress-free from her? All orders to the Keeler post office, she pledges, will be returned by priority mail the same day they are received.
“My, how time flies!” began her most recent Christmas pitch. “The holiday season is fast approaching and I wanted to take this opportunity to extend my very best wishes to all of our Keeler postal customers who have so faithfully helped support our little post office throughout the year.”
That was Swanson’s warmup. Here’s her clincher: “It is your business that enables us to remain open and active and a vital part of our historic little community. To date, 59 small post offices have closed nationwide for lack of business.”
One of Swanson’s top customers is a law firm in Santa Monica. Attorney John Conkle recalls wandering around Keeler while on a trip through the Owens Valley several years ago. “Here was this tiny post office in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “The woman gave me her pitch and I was hooked.”
Now Conkle and his law partners buy stamps from Keeler for personal use and for invitations to company parties. The appeal isn’t just convenience, it’s also Swanson’s can-do attitude. “I’d buy stamps from Nylia wherever she set up shop,” Conkle said.
The Keeler post office has been threatened before. In 1981, the postal service sought to shutter the branch. Residents balked and the office was spared.
In 1997, Postmaster Giesel Rice watched nervously as the branch’s annual walk-in business dropped to $685. Rather than surrender, Rice got busy. She checked county records to find Keeler property owners who didn’t live there, sending them pleas for stamp purchases.
“That place was my baby,” she said. “I couldn’t let it die.”
Rice quickly went from small-town postmaster to super saleswoman. She soon had so many new customers she bought a Rolodex to keep them all straight.
At Rice’s direction, Bob Crotts, a Keeler property owner who lives in Canyon Country, began pitching the post office to patrons at the country club where he works as a bartender. Crotts enlisted his brother and sister to take up the cause. Every now and then, he’d send Rice a note to announce, “I got a few new customers for you!”
In 2004, when Rice was promoted to postmaster in nearby Independence (population 574), she handed her Rolodex over to Swanson, a former long-distance truck driver and car-racing fanatic who still organizes her day around NASCAR events on TV.
“I was 69 when I got the postal job,” Swanson recalled. “And I thought ‘Boy, they must be desperate!’ ”
She quickly took up where Rice left off.
Now Swanson brings in $1,000 a month, all from her purple desk, which sits next to the pink safe inside the low-slung brick postal branch. A white picket fence surrounds the building, which is decorated with pots of plastic flowers and a community bulletin board. But few people see the decorative touches.
At the end of the 1800s, Keeler boasted 10,000 residents, saloons, hotels and a busy train station. But the mines closed and the railroad failed long, long ago. Now the place is so deserted that nobody noticed one day when Swanson mistakenly hoisted the flag upside down.
Quite a few residents are sick shut-ins. The town’s lone firetruck sits in disrepair and residents have fire hoses hooked up in various spots around town so they don’t have to pay firefighters in nearby Lone Pine to make house calls.
“We’ve got four kids in town, maybe only three now,” said Swanson, who moved here 15 years ago from Orange County. “Two are teenagers. Soon, they’ll be gone.”
Keeler’s 42 square blocks, dotted with abandoned buildings, mobile homes and railroad cars converted to housing, sit empty most days. The reasons: heat, dust and bugs.
On some days, the temperature reaches 120. Clouds of fine dust rise off bone-dry Owens Lake, creating some of the nation’s worst particulate air pollution, often so dense Swanson can’t see 100 feet from her office. Other days, swarms of deer flies nearly block out the sun.
Amid otherworldly conditions, Swanson keeps plugging her post office. A while back, she approached Los Angeles Department of Water and Power workers who are stationed in Keeler to mitigate the dust problem. Now DWP secretaries and others on the project are among her biggest customers.
Still, Swanson isn’t sure how much longer she can stave off the inevitable. Her worst enemy, she says, is the metered mail big firms use instead of stamps. Time also does not seem to be on her side. Workers for the Owens Lake mitigation program, she hears, will soon be moving on.
“I’m afraid revenue is going to go down the toilet,” she said recently. “The day this post office closes will drive a stake clean through this little town’s heart.”