Anne Larson has been taking care of Kensington’s mail for 17 years. But she doesn’t work for the U.S. Postal Service.
Still, for anyone in town who has to mail a package and wants to know whether it should go "Priority" or just "First Class," she’s the person with all the answers.
Larson has been the smiling face of the post office in the since she left her job as a librarian for a CPA firm in San Francisco. “I didn’t set out to work for the post office," she says. "I used to come to the pharmacy with my mother, and one day I found out they were looking for a clerk in the drugstore. So I applied.”
She got the job and quickly learned that everyone in the store was supposed to be trained to work at the small post office. She learned the job and has been dispensing postage ever since. And back then you had to lick the stamps, or at least use a sponge.
Technically it’s a "Contract Postal Unit" (CPU), which means that she still works for the pharmacy, which has a long-term contract with the Postal Service.
“There used to be lots of little CPU’s in stores all over the country, but slowly they’ve been closed," she notes. "There are still some others in East Bay, but I’m not sure where they are.”
Larson does just about everything in the pharmacy, but most days she’s behind the post office sign, and for all intents she’s the town postmaster. It’s just one more element in Kensington that gives the place its small-town feel.
She’s quick to point out there are some things her little postal unit can’t do, such as ship overnight to the East Coast, or take credit cards, but most everything else that residents send, she can handle.
Things have changed over time, from the cost of postage to self-stick stamps and flat rate boxes — she’s seen it all.
“The toughest days are tax day and just before Christmas," she says. "Then it’s just long lines, and one person after another. It’s not very personal.”
It’s clear that it’s the personal side of things that she likes most, like customers who come in with their pets and find that Larson has a secret stash of doggie treats.
“I have my regulars,” she says, referring to both the pets and the people. She’s a dog owner, herself so she understands owners who stop in while they walk the dog along the Arlington strip.
“I have some people who come every day,” she adds. “They buy one stamp or two or mail a small package and then go have lunch. We chat about what’s going on.”
Why do people come to her? “I think it’s the lines. Most of the other post offices have long lines and can be tough to deal with. Kensington customers tend to be older and don’t want to deal with all that,” she says.
These days, she says, she notices that she’s getting more customers from other towns in the area. “I look at the return address and see that they live within walking distance of the post office on Solano, or El Cerrito, but they come up here to mail their stuff,” she says rather quizzically.
“I don’t know why, they just do,” she adds.
Larson doesn’t have all the fancy "integrated systems" that they have at regular post offices, but with two mail pickups a day, the letters and packages get where they’re supposed to go. She says the toughest part can often be explaining why the ZIP code in upper Kensington (east of The Arlington) is the same as Berkeley, while the town is part of Contra Costa County, not Alameda County.
What’s the strangest thing she ever sent? "I once sent a didgeridoo to Australia. I only know that because it was such a large box I asked what was in it. Most of the time, I really don’t know what people are sending,” she says.
Excepts for the busy seasons, Larson says, “It’s really pretty mundane.” But it’s clear she enjoys the job, and along with Jacob Cano, who fills in when Larson is sick or on vacation, she’s become the face of the postal service in Kensington and has no plans to make any changes.
Because of email and the Postal Service online site, she says, business is down from past years, but she hasn’t even heard rumors about what the future will hold.
“This has to be about the cheapest way to provide the service. The post office doesn’t have to pay benefits or salary. We’re all pharmacy employees, so closing this down wouldn’t save that much.”
She agrees that if this happened, “There would be a quite a protest.”
Larson says she’s only had four bosses in her 17 years, reeling off the names of the pharmacy owners like they were standing in front of her.
Kensington's post office — located in the drugstore “since they took out the soda fountain in the late '50s” — is a draw for the pharmacy and for the other merchants in the neighborhood, and it doesn’t look like anyone wants anything to change.