Village Post Offices are increasing in number across the region. There are 36 VPOs in the tri-state region, seven of them within 70 miles of Chattanooga, according to the most recent information from the U.S. Postal Service.
382: Nationwide (as of Sept. 27, 2013)
Source: U.S. Postal Service
Graysville (Rhea County): Sunshine Market & Deli, 4570 Dayton Ave.
Englewood (McMinn County): Valley Mart, 201 Englewood Ave.
Pisgah (Jackson County): Rosalie Food Mart, 14490 Alabama Highway 71
Bryant (Jackson County): The Tax Clinic, 29811 Alabama Highway 71
Sylvania (DeKalb County): Sylvania Pharmacy, 14 Industrial Lane
Valley Head (DeKalb County): Valley Head Drugs, 114 Commerce Ave.
While there are no VPOs within 70 miles of Chattanooga, the nearest is at the Wolf Pen Gap Country Store in the town of Suches in Union County.
Source: U.S. Postal Service
The solution to the U.S. Postal Service's reduced operating hours at many of its rural offices is sprouting up like dandelions all over the region.
Federal officials in Alabama say they were shooting for establishing 20 "Village Post Offices" by today and are nearly there. Tennessee and Georgia also are starting to gain some locations, though not as many so far.
A Village Post Office, or VPO, might be found in convenience stores, gas stations, local businesses, libraries and inside other government agencies. They are operated by management of the location, postal officials said. Operator compensation at each location is negotiated.
VPOs offer a range of popular products and services -- the ones most used by customers -- including post office boxes, "forever" stamps, pre-paid Priority Mail flat rate envelopes and a mail collection box.
U.S. Postal Service spokeswoman Debbie Fetterly said the four VPOs opened since spring in Jackson and DeKalb counties bring Alabama's tally to 16. They are in Sylvania and Valley Head in DeKalb County, and near Pisgah and Bryant in Jackson.
New VPO operators like having something additional to offer at their businesses to attract new customers who might not ordinarily visit.
"We're the Tax Clinic, the U-Haul Rental, the 'Higdon Village Post Office' and a lady here does embroidery. We're the 'minimall' of Higdon," Cecelia Moore, owner of a store in the small Jackson County community on Alabama Highway 71 near Bryant, said with a laugh. "It's done better than I thought it would."
The official U.S. Post Office in nearby Bryant was among those where hours were reduced, she said, so she was happy to be enlisted.
Fifteen miles south, Rosalie Food Mart owner David Mayo says that after three months of operation, people are using the little USPS kiosk in the back of his store more and more.
"I have sold some stamps at night, and people drop off their boxes here for pickup," Mayo said. The Food Mart is open till 9:30 p.m. CDT on weeknights, giving customers a chance to get their postal service goodies even after supper, he said.
A large blue and white postal service sign posted on VPO locations stands out, and people seem to like their local link to the federal mail and generally identify it with the community rather than the town credited with its mail route.
"People say, 'Hey, Rosalie has its own post office,'" Mayo said.
Last October, the postal service announced plans for reductions in hours at about 60 rural post offices in the tri-state region. After that announcement, federal officials set up community meetings to weigh closure or a reduction in hours against other options, among them VPOs, according to Postal Service spokesman David Walton, who works in the Kentucky and Tennessee districts.
In the Postal Service's nationwide effort last year to save $500 million annually, four options were pitched to communities -- "reduced operating hours at the existing post office; opt for a rural carrier to provide postal services; get postal services from another nearby post office or the establishment of a Village Post Office," Walton said.
There are already almost 400 VPOs in the U.S., but they are by no means commonplace.
Valley Head Drugs owner Cynthia Wootten said the VPO at the end of her pharmacy counter draws new people to the store that has been on the corner of Commerce Avenue and Winston Street for 85 years. A photograph hanging inside shows horses and buggies parked along Commerce Street.
"It's been going good so far," Wootten said.
Valley Head Post Office hours were not reduced, though the pharmacy's hours are different enough to give people some different times to do their postal business, she said.
The most popular items are stamps, she said.
Judy Jackson owns the Tiger's Inn Family Restaurant a few doors down.
"It's much more convenient for me; it's just down the street," Jackson said, taking a break from the early lunch crowd on Thursday.
And she can do her mail business after she closes, since Wootten is open later, she said.
The Sunrise Market & Deli in Graysville, Tenn., has had its VPO since the first of the year. The store is a couple of blocks from the local post office where hours were cut last year.
Store clerk Tonnie "T" Swearingen said the drop box outside gets lots of traffic and stamps are popular. The store's hours make it a good option, she said.
"We're open from 5 a.m. till around 9 or 10 at night," Swearingen said.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569.