Deborah Tallent could get her mail delivered to her house, but she likes stopping by the LeNoir Store, so she pays $44 a year to rent a post office box instead.
When she and her husband first moved to rural Sumter County, Tallent was homesick. She told the postmaster, Steve LeNoir, that her mother was sending her a homemade pecan pie from Arkansas. As soon as it arrived, LeNoir called to tell her.
“He’s just wonderful. The whole family, it’s not just Steve,” Tallent beamed. “We’re not just customers to them.”
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The LeNoir family has run a one-room country store in this farming community for 200 years.
Truth be told, the store doesn’t do a lot of business anymore. It’s the post office, right inside the door, that draws people in every day. Of 154 post office boxes, 125 are rented.
But the century-old Horatio Post Office may be forced to close. It’s one of 27 in South Carolina and 3,270 nationwide the U.S. Postal Service wants to shut down, saving the strapped agency some $3 billion.
If the post office closes, the store won’t be far behind.
That would be heartbreaking for many who live in this community off S.C. 261, a back road connecting Sumter and Camden. For them, the LeNoir Store is a place to see neighbors, be greeted by name and share good news and words of comfort.
Tallent, clutching a handful of letters, said the little store and post office are part of what makes life good.
“We’re losing all these little spots, and they’re so important,” said Tallent, 53. “We’re just laid-back country people. It’s like we’re being forced to go into the city, and we just want it to stay the way it is.”
‘People comfortable to be around’
The convenience of the internet and big-box stores is intruding on life in Horatio, a community near the Wateree River where perhaps 1,000 people live. (“We might be bragging a little bit,” the postmaster said.)
Around here, flat fields are interrupted by handsome farmhouses, noisy crows flock to woods and tractors chug along with blinkers flashing.
Acres of land separate people, so the LeNoir Store is where they run in to each other.
The dim and dusty mercantile, lined with canned goods, refrigerator cases and curios, serves mostly workmen looking for a lunch of bologna and a slice of hoop cheese or folks who stop by for fresh produce. Their purchases fit in small paper bags.
LeNoir refuses to sell the beer, wine or lottery tickets that could boost store sales. “My mother and father, they didn’t drink, so I never would bring it in here out of respect,” he said.
People pulling up to the LeNoir Store park every which way. Some leave their motors running while they climb the worn cement steps and go inside.
Immediately to the left is the cubby where LeNoir sorts the mail, takes in boxes to ship and sells stamps.
At the first of every month, a good many customers come in for money orders. They don’t have bank accounts, so LeNoir serves as their unofficial banker.
He fills out money orders for about a dozen people who don’t read or write.
The other day, a fellow tossed an envelope on the counter and turned on his heel. LeNoir immediately reached for a money order, wrote a $50 payment to the local hospital and set 85 cents in the man’s post office box to pick up later.
The difference of $1.15 went into the post office money drawer, part of the year’s revenue of $18,000.
The postal service pays $140 a month in rent, which includes utilities.
Light bulbs hang from the ceiling. A space heater provides warmth. The door remains open, regardless of the weather.
Joe Harris, 75, came in the store to buy a couple of tomatoes and an onion for stew. “I was born and raised in this area,” he said. “I know everybody in here.”
Harris said he lived in New York for more than 30 years, retiring from the subway system. He’s glad he moved back home. “Slow pace,” he said, “and people comfortable to be around.”
Mary Miller, 25, came in to ship a package for her Internet-based business. She collects and sells model horses.
Miller grew up in Los Angeles, “the land of frayed nerves,” and moved out here about four years ago. “I like being able to know my neighbors,” she said. “One day, my horse was loose and people corralled him up.”
She lives close enough to walk to the store. “We didn’t have buildings like this in California,” she said.
“If the post office goes, I’m afraid of what’s going to happen to the store. It is absolutely depressing to me. Devastating.”
His mother before him
LeNoir, 54, a tall, slender man with red cheeks and gray hair, has been postmaster for 31 years.
Vice president of the National League of Postmasters, he said putting profits ahead of people is the wrong way to go.
Some patrons don’t have any other way to do business, he said. They may not have a computer. They may not be well-educated.
“I think postal service is a fundamental right, like police protection, fire service,” LeNoir said.
His mother, Carrie Baker LeNoir, was postmaster for 33 years before him.
She led the fight when the agency wanted to close the Horatio Post Office in 1976. On more than one occasion, she drove up to Charlotte to visit the district manager, only to be told by his secretary that he was out. “That’s all right,” she’d say, “I’ll just sit right here and wait for him.”
In the end, another post office a couple of miles away was closed. Now, that community’s name is marked only by a simple green highway sign: HAGOOD.
Carrie LeNoir and her late husband, Gaillard, raised six children in the house next to the store. One little girl died.
For years, she ran the post office and he ran the store.
Carrie LeNoir had a hand in all sorts of civic affairs, too: the Sumter County Democratic Party, the Poinsett Garden Club, the flower show at the county fair. She was a volunteer with the Horatio Fire Department, usually the driver. Her son said she could always get to the station first because she lived closest and all she had to do was button a firefighter’s coat over her clothes.
Mackenzie Sholtz said she couldn’t remember any major community event that didn’t involve Carrie LeNoir.
“She is the epitome of a Southern lady,” said Sholtz, 53 and active with the Sumter County Museum. “She could run a tractor, run a post office, do a tea party.”
But “Ms. Carrie” had to stop working at the store about two years ago.
She tripped over a box and broke her shoulder, starting a decline in health requiring a move into an assisted-living facility in Sumter at Thanksgiving. She is 91.
She hasn’t been back to the LeNoir Store, though her oldest son, Sam, has been taking her to services at the nearby Episcopal Church of the Ascension each Sunday.
Sam LeNoir, 69, said his mother has Alzheimer’s or dementia. He asked the doctor which and was told: “Take your pick.”
Looking toward May
Everyone in Horatio is expecting news from the U.S. Postal Service in May.
Steve LeNoir, the seventh generation to manage the LeNoir Store, won’t speculate about what might happen though he admitted it weighs on him.
He tries not to take it all personally, but that’s hard to do.
“I love this community. I’ve been here all my life,” he said.
“When it’s gone, people will realize what they’ve lost, and it’ll be too late.”
If the post office in Horatio closes, residents will drive an extra seven miles, to Rembert, to mail their packages and buy their stamps.
But really, that’s not the point.
Each time a post office closes, a little community loses its identity, said Harvey Teal, an expert on S.C. postal history. And after awhile, the highway sign may be lost, too.
“People have pride in that name, because that’s home,” Teal said. “That’s us. That’s community.”