By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS and GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Shimpo
A steady stream of customers, parcels in hand, arrived at the Little Tokyo Post Office on Monday, only to find the door locked and a posted sign announcing the close of business.
Most confused, many in disbelief, their packages and letters were being accepted by an U.S. Postal Service van parked directly in front of what has been a bustling facility in Honda Plaza since its opening in 2006.
Inside, owner Peter Allen and his wife, De Julian, surveyed what was left of the business they built over the past 13 years. The mailing equipment, including the tall counters, had been hauled away by the USPS, leaving the store mostly empty.
“Closing down, I knew it was coming, but how they did it was bad. The reality is they wanted to close us down, but they didn’t come forward with that,” Allen said, adding that with sufficient notice, he could have made arrangements to wind down his business and liquidate an inventory that included thousands of non-refundable stamps.
The Little Tokyo location is what is termed a “contract postal unit,” and privately operated postal satellite contracted by the USPS to serve localized markets. Allen’s CPU was abruptly shuttered Friday, after receiving orders from the local postmaster to cease operations within 24 hours.
“They came with a letter Thursday night,” Allen said. “My contract says they should give us a four-month decision to terminate, but there’s a small clause that allows for a one-day notice.”
The Little Tokyo CPU has provided a much-needed service to the local community, including Japantown and the Arts District. Allen speaks Japanese fluently, and the staff would regularly provide packing materials and assistance free of charge.
“We really want to say thank you to the whole community that supported us; we’re very grateful for that,” said Julian. “The ones that really lose are the seniors. They were really happy we’re here, now they’re sad.”
In an email to The Rafu, Lynn Jones, a business service representative at the USPS Terminal Annex Finance Station, said the Little Tokyo location was closed for violations of their service agreement.
“It was a Contract Postal Unit and the persons running the business breached our contract and our Office of Inspector General did an audit and inspection, and shut them down,” the email explained.
A sign posted on the window of Allen’s store tells a different story. The note reads: “Among the stated reasons is that of upkeep, which is considered to be unacceptable to the USPS district office of Los Angeles … However they are more concerned with aesthetics rather than the needs of the customer.”
The Little Tokyo CPU is one of the busiest postal units in the are – Allen said they process more mail and parcels than the nearest four locations combined. On any given evening, the small retail space is overflowing with packages, most of which are pre-paid drop-offs from local businesses doing much of their selling online.
According to Allen and Julian, their success and volume is the reason they were targeted for closure. Little Tokyo accepted thousands of packages daily, but only one USPS truck would be sent in the evening to handle the huge amount of mail, a situation Allen said was woefully insufficient to handle the load.
Allen and Julian contend that USPS refused to schedule additional pickups, requiring them to securely store the leftover parcels and hampers, knowing full well the limits on their space.
“They would send one truck in the evening, around 5:30, and then accuse us of not storing the rest correctly and delaying the mail,” Allen said, adding “They will pick anything – it’s not clean enough, whatever they can find to shut us down.”
USPS customer and industry contact manager Natahi Garvins told The Rafu that the Little Tokyo CPU was closed for breach of contract, though she declined to list specific violations.
“USPS clearly defines the processes that CPU owners should be following, and there were some things [at Little Tokyo] that were not financially advantageous,” Garvins explained.
She said after “great efforts” and “many attempts” to resolve any issues with Allen and Julian, the decision to close Little Tokyo was made by the USPS in Washington.
Garvins acknowledged the value to the community and financial success of the LIttle Tokyo CPU, but insisted the violations warranted the order to shut down.
“The Little Tokyo CPU was very valuable to us as well, and lucrative, but some things couldn’t go on as they were,” she said.
The closing is hardly a surprise for Allen and Julian, who said the process began last summer, when a USPS official stood outside their door, imploring incoming customers to take their business elsewhere.
“He was standing outside, telling customers to go somewhere else,” Julian said, identifying the official as a district postmaster named Ken Snavely. “One customer was carrying bags of packages, and he came in to ask us what was going on.”
Julian is convinced that USPS was searching for any reason for a reason to close the Little Tokyo location, describing how a USPS logistics expert she named as Mike Leahy visited last June to inspect the facility.
“He came here and talked to Peter, who explained how our system works,” she recalled. “It went in one ear and out the other, and he did what he already wanted to do.”
The website FederalPay.org, a resource for government employee salaries, lists a Michael C. Leahy as an operations industrial engineer at the USPS in Washington in 2014.
Since then, Allen said he received little support from the local postmaster, for issues that included not receiving enough equipment to process and move mail during the just-completed holiday rush.
“Many nights starting in late November, I was here until 2 a.m., and some packages were delayed up to two days – at Christmas time,” he said.
On their final day of business last Friday, the customers waiting to send packages were blindsided by the sudden news of the Little Tokyo CPU’s closing at the end of the business day. It was clear that the branch had developed a loyal following.
One longtime client spent $1,000 to buy Allen’s inventory of stamps, so he wouldn’t be stuck with them. Jo Ann Hirose said she stopped by as soon as she heard of the closing.
“It’s too tragic, too emotional for me,” she said.
Allen said that much of his business involves elderly and low-income residents, many of whom walk to the Little Tokyo store. He described many who have relied on the office as being bewildered by what has happened.
“That’s what I was seeing last Saturday, an older gentleman with a large package on his cart. He saw the sign and turned away. Later, I saw him walking up to Alameda. I hope he made it, because it was close to closing time.”
Allen and Julian have no immediate plans to abandon their storefront in Honda Plaza. When they opened in 2006, they also operated a thriving cell phone business, but will not return to that highly-saturated industry. Allen said he had previously been contacted about becoming a retail outlet for the United Parcel Service.
“UPS is beginning to target the small package market,” he explained. In order to go after that market, you need to have retail locations. They already have the logistics, with processing centers and planes.They’re aggressively opening retail outlets, and we have one where we live in San Pedro now.”
What seems quite certain is that his business relationship with the U.S. Postal Service is irrevocably ended.
“As far as USPS is concerned, I’m done,” he said.