As I’m walking over to the post office this morning, I’m thinking about today’s blog post. I talk a lot in this space about our dedication to our hometown of Princeton, Wisconsin. Many critics—including some big investor groups—have tried to persuade me to pull up stakes here in Princeton and outsource our production to bigger cities or foreign countries to save money. I’ve always said thanks but no, and I always will. These critics think I’m leaving money on the table. For my part, I feel like they’re not seeing the much larger investment I’m making here. Oscar Wilde once said, “A critic is someone who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” Wilde was speaking of theater critics, but he might as well have been talking about Wall Street stock brokerage firms. Brooding on the difference between price and value, I open the door to my local post office and step inside.
“A critic is someone who knows the price of everything
and the value of nothing.” --Oscar Wilde
A Line of Continuity
The Princeton Post Office is a very modest building. Walking in, you see a closet-sized, three-sided nook lined with the original P.O. boxes. The boxes are quite small, half the size of a contemporary one, built in a time before piles of outsized junk mail ruled the day. Charmingly ornate, their brass faces feature star-shaped, 10-pointed locking mechanisms, tiny glass windows displaying their numbers in gold and red, and all of it bordered with a Greek-key design. The Greek key motif, originally called a meander, is a symbol of continuity and unity, an uninterrupted line that takes a repeating, circuitous journey. The famous phrase often ascribed to the postal service, "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" was originally translated from the ancient Greek writer Herodotus in 500 B.C. to describe postal carriers. And here, framing each and every post box on the walls of a tiny Midwestern post office, is a subtle reference to that proud history. Seventy years ago, somebody thought that even a P.O. Box could be beautiful and thoughtfully made. Modern P.O. boxes are blank and featureless, and doubtless far cheaper to produce. Price. Value. What are things worth?
Sticking by Friends
I open the second, inner door, take three steps, and I’m instantly in the center of the post office. Like I said, it’s small. There are a couple of people ahead of me, so I lean on the counter to wait my turn, still brooding about price and value. I know these critics who think I should outsource everything are just trying to help, but they don’t understand when I tell them that I’m determined to not only make this company a success, but to help lift up the community I love in the process. In response, they usually smile and nod politely. Some commend me for my idealism and good intentions. But it’s obvious that many think I’m some kind of Middle-American Don Quixote dreaming an impossible dream of reclamation in this, one of the poorest counties in Wisconsin. I’m most decidedly not, but it could be that I’m not explaining it as well as I might. It’s about sticking by the side of the real people who are my Princeton friends and neighbors. It’s about people like Joan Baumgartner, Princeton’s Postmaster, who now sees me waiting and waves me over with a smile so she can help me.
The Value of Names
We ship our Site:1 speakers all over the country. Like any business, we have options when it comes to how we ship, and which vendor we use to deliver our speakers. If we hired a faceless international corporation to deliver these speakers, as we did at other companies I’ve worked for, some anonymous guy in a uniform would breeze by, grab our packages, get a signature on a form, and leave. It always seemed to be a different guy each time. There were never any introductions, no names or handshakes were exchanged, and no goodbyes spoken. Where he came from, and where he went afterwards, I couldn’t tell you. The Company sent him. It was as impersonal as using an ATM. That’s what it’s like when you do business with strangers. But it’s not how we do it.
Signed, Sealed, Delivered by Joan
When we ship out your speaker, we do a final check on it, box it up, and then walk it directly across the street to the post office, and hand it to Joan to mail for us. Joan is “new” to the role, people joke, as she only took over from the old postmaster five years ago. But we all know her, and she knows us all by name, and we trust her to get our cards, letters, and carefully wrapped packages where they need to go. If you take a job with a corporate delivery company, you sign an employment agreement. When Joan was appointed to work for the Postal Service, she took an oath. Joan solemnly swore to faithfully perform the duties entrusted to her, and to uphold the Constitution of the United States. I mean, c’mon—who would you give your package to?
One Person’s Treasure
While Joan is helping me with my shipping order, we catch up, and I share with her my ruminations about price vs. value. At that, she smiles and tells me that if I have a minute, she’d like to show me something. I do, so she leads me around the partition to her desk, and pulls a manila folder out of a drawer in her office filing cabinet. “This,” she says holding aloft the folder with a smile, “is valuable.” Inside, there’s a nearly illegible photocopy of a photocopy of an old hand-typed, three-page mimeograph that summarizes the long history of the place. With it are weathered newspaper clippings, ancient service documents, even a colorful old ad encouraging job hunters to “Secure Your Future with a Career Position at the Post Office” with the words “Starting Salary $2.15 Per Hour” offered as proof. Most of it wouldn’t fetch ten bucks on eBay but, to Joan, this is treasure. Like me, she loves what she does, and she’s proud of her part in its history and traditions. I think it’s wonderful, and I tell her as much. In return, she tells me how much she appreciates Princeton Audio.
“I think that it’s great what you’re doing here,” she says, “that you count it as important to stay connected to the people of this town. In some of our smaller communities, we’re losing sight of the relationship between businesses, that circle of friends where everyone does business with everyone else, and we keep each other going. Too much is outsourced, the work goes to the big cities, and the smaller communities die off because they don’t have the good jobs to keep people here. It’s not just economic either; it’s our personal connection to each other, that’s what truly makes us a community. It keeps us healthy.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Choosing to Stay
Joan tells me that revenues are up at her branch, and I congratulate her. While I blush to report it myself, she goes on to say that she is continuing to hear from locals and visitors alike that Princeton Audio's commitment to the town -- building our headquarters and production facilities here and locally sourcing our materials -- has really helped, and she’s seen the difference herself. “People have more reason to come here now, and to linger longer when they visit. It seems like the town has a bit more of a spring in its step these days.” She pats my hand and smiles, “It’s good that you built it here. And that you choose to stay.”
Continuity and Unity
As I step outside to go back to work, I turn and look back on the post office with its American flag gently rippling in the breeze above it. In 1848, when Abe Lincoln was still a freshman member of the House of Representatives, Postmaster John Knapp founded the Princeton Post Office. Ten years later, Lincoln famously said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” If we stop taking care of each other and only look after ourselves, if we sacrifice Value on the altar of Price, then our community will not endure. Prices only go up, for us and for our customers, but if I and my fellow Princetonians decide to take our shipping elsewhere, it could lead to the shuttering of this tiny post office, a 169-year-old tradition will end, and one more fixture of our hometown will vanish into memory. But I'm not having it. I know the value of the Princeton Post Office. Sure, we could shave pennies by switching to a faceless corporate entity for our shipping, but you can add that to the already long list of things I refuse to do just for the sake of making more money. There are some things you can't put a price on.