At Large in Ballard: Calm and carrying on
If Ballard Mailbox looked small between its neighbors before, that’s nothing compared to how it will soon look on the edge of the hole to be dug for underground parking of a seven-story, 309-unit mixed use development that will rise on an adjoining wall. Especially during construction next door, Ballard Mailbox may look increasingly threatened -- but appearances can be deceiving. Inside, all is well for the 800+ mailbox customers. “We’re not going anywhere,” Manager Nicole Witham assured me.
Witham speaks with calm assurance, whether handling the needs of a customer in a desperate shipping situation or coordinating with the construction firm working next door. Witham is manager as well as tenant, with an apartment upstairs. She’s worked at Ballard Mailbox since her middle school years under previous ownership. Her mother Angela Small bought the business in 2008 and the building itself in late 2010. With the impact of major excavation and construction for the next two years, Witham is also part project manager.
A long-time fan of Ballard Mailbox, I’ve always been on the customer side of the counter. When Nicole Witham and I met she took me to the other side, where the mail gets distributed. Mailboxes have a mystique for me. My parents have had the same box and combination since 1964. Being on the open side of the mailboxes seemed as revealing as learning how a magician’s assistant gets sawed in half.
The sailing posters, magazines and bulletin board notices all signal strong ties to the marine industry. I knew that many Shilshole liveaboards had mailboxes at 2442 NW Market but that’s just the tip of Ballard Mailboxes’ specialized services for the industry. They send parts to Dutch Harbor almost weekly as well as providing a place for fishermen, liveaboards and those out cruising to receive their packages. They offer ‘Will Call’ and package delivery for landlubbers such as condo dwellers and small businesses. When they’re not receiving, they’re shipping; using only second-hand packing materials.
I’ve enjoyed temporary mailbox privileges there on behalf of nomadic friends: once checking mail for two years as my friends circumnavigated North America, and again when they traveled Asia. They shipped their climbing supplies from India to Ballard Mailbox -- the box so rifled by custom agents that it had been rewrapped into a dingy ball of wrapping tape. I’d get to know the employees; many of them students or living on their boats. Ballard Mailbox has always been a place of dogs and familiarity. I count on them to be able to calculate my shipping options and make it happen in under a minute.
When friends bemoan the post office at the holidays, I ask, why go there when all their needs could be met at Ballard Mailbox, plus dogs frolicking? Witham’s black Labrador Jim is just one of two resident dogs; folks stop in just to visit Jim. Many of the box holders have been customers dating back to Ballard Mailboxes’ earliest days. When Witham sees a customer elsewhere she’s tempted to call out, “Hey, #121, how’s it going?”
Sitting on the other side with Nicole Witham reminded me how there is a story behind every door, whether it’s the bright blue 24-hour entrance on Market Street, the little keyed mailbox doors or the confident young woman. Already a graduate in architecture and interior design, Witham is getting an Environment & Community Master’s at Antioch University with a specialization in sustainable food practices and permaculature design.Translation. (Witham wants to be is a farmer.) For now she has tomatoes in movable beds that Limback’s Lumber built her, a plot at the P-Patch on NW 58th and had an internship with Jubilee Farms in Carnation.
Despite Design Review meetings, many customers were surprised when the chain link fence went up and the former site of Jacobsen’s Marine was demolished. It didn’t work out for Ballard Mailbox to be part of the new development, so they will make the best of the disruption and plan exterior improvements after the construction is complete. Witham stresses that both the developer and general contractor have been fantastic about communicating project specifics and potentially disruptive tasks.
“There’s no walking away from a business with this kind of a client base,” Witham told me. “It’s a simple business model but it fills a huge niche.” In addition to accepting shipping materials and encouraging folks to eliminate their junk mail, Witham also deliberately supports other local businesses and artists. “I am very much a hardcore local person,” she said of carrying local products in the store and providing trade opportunities. “We’re a local, family-owned business. It’s community.”
Although Ballard Mailbox isn’t going anywhere that won’t stop Nicole Witham from one day stepping away from management to pursue her dream of farming. “People want to know where their food is coming from,” Witham said. The hyper-local model is one she’s already been perfecting in her many years at Ballard Mailbox, one in which there are no strangers.