September 11, 2016
On July 2 Jules James quietly delivered Lake Union Mail to a new owner. He had owned the small storefront shop that packed and shipped boxes, sold stamps and rented out some 500 private mailboxes on Louisa St. behind Louisa’s Café in Eastlake since 1989. The news came as a shock to the neighborhood.
Jules too was still reeling a few weeks later when I talked to him about the sale and his plans one beautiful Sunday morning on the deck of his home on Franklin Ave. The deck had a window view between two tall lush green trees of not only the business’s namesake but also a central focus of Jules’ life – Lake Union.
The sale transition had been an extremely stressful time, of keeping up a normal front, while dealing with changes behind the scenes, such as training a new manager, and keeping it all secret, which he felt was necessary for the sake of the business. He was running the gamut of emotions — both elated and whatever its opposite is. But he didn’t have any doubt that it was the right thing for himself, the business, and Eastlake.
Why sell? Because “the way the world is thinking I’m not thinking,” he says.
He’s a shoot from the hip type person, he admits, and he announced the news on the business’s Facebook page that way writing, “Approximately every six months since a decade ago, Joe Davis (PMB 339) has said: ‘If you are ever ready to sell Lake Union Mail, I’m ready to buy.’”
Then he fired, “Joe Davis is the new owner of Lake Union Mail. Amy Sjoberg is the new boss.”
“I understand crumpled cash and multi-page hand-written personal letters. I’ll never comprehend buying toothpaste on-line,” he added.
“It’s an analog business with digital on top of that,” Jules says. The mail business needs to change to keep up with the times. He speculates on what that might be, apps telling you when a piece of mail has arrived…, but he no longer needs to try to figure it out. That’s up to the new owner.
While we spoke a seaplane flew overhead in a low northeast direction. I had to stop the conversation because my hearing is shot and wait for the plane to pass. “That’s Yvette,” he said.
“You know who flies the planes?” I asked. He nodded. He could tell by the time of day and the way the plane was being flown. He could write a book about seaplanes and their history on Lake Union, in fact he has been ever since his son Alex was two, he’s now 21; maybe he’d finish it, he said with a smile and a shrug.
Over a quarter of a century is a long enough time to start a business, become stable enough to get married and have a son, have that marriage not work out, find love again and marry and gain a blended family, watch your kids grow and cut their teeth on the family business, watch neighborhood kids grow and give them their first job. My daughter for instance, on her own initiative, asked Jules for a job, during that difficult Catch 22 time when you need experience to have a job, but can’t get experience without a job; he gave her that break. He’s given many a similar break. Lake Union Mail has employed about 100 people over the years. He knows mail clerk is not a dream job for most, but it’s a job that can help build a dream. “Money is essential but not important,” he says. With that in mind he tried to schedule work around his employee’s priorities.
But as owner that meant working pretty much all the time; even when he was not working he was thinking about work, he says. It was a six day a week job, and even Sunday his day off, today, he’s still fussing about a $10 package that is reported lost because even though he sold the store he’s still on as consultant, turning over all that institutional knowledge, but if he were an employee he wouldn’t be thinking about that package, he notes with a laugh; it would be something he’d deal with in twenty minutes on Monday.
Lake Union Mail was born of a letter, a newsletter, as Jules tells it on the business’s website. He was looking for another small business to start while he grew his recycling business in the 1980s. At the same time he was on the board of the Eastlake Community Council, which was trying to encourage good development in the neighborhood. The ECC ran a survey in The Eastlake News asking residents what type of businesses were needed.
One of the top three suggestions was a post office. And one of the first things Jules did when he opened Lake Union Mail was donate mail box #1 to the ECC for perpetuity. Then the city took on recycling as part of its waste management program. Almost overnight recyclers were out of business. The recycling store front that also sold stamps and shipped items suddenly flipped priorities. “Your grand plan is not always what you do,” says Jules. Fortunately a post office is just what the neighborhood needed (so much so it could over the years support two). Besides Jules who had also been a building manager says just about all his jobs ended with him sorting mail.
Lake Union Mail became known for building community and for its old fashioned customer service, earning it a feature in the Seattle Times 2008 Small Business Scene. Although we didn’t talk about specifics of the sale, keeping the customer service spirit of LUM was undoubtedly part of the deal; keeping that first mailbox for the ECC definitely was.
All the same, there will be changes. “I told Joe during closing, ‘you need to disrespect the old owner.’” It’s necessary for the business to evolve, he says. Of course when the new owner actually takes the advice, it’s a bit jarring. Some of the changes have already taken Jules by surprise, he admits but shrugs it off. LUM may even have to move, he adds, which seems almost unthinkable.
For a history major Jules appears to have stumbled on a perfect line of work, one that’s historical in its own right. The post office was once where everyone came to get their mail before there was home delivery; it was a central spot for communication. And Jules has been like an old time postmaster.
Working at LUM felt like being inside an encyclopedia, says Jules. Five hundred experts coming through the door to collect their mail. Conversations that got started, cut short, and picked up a few days later.
The store’s location too was just up the hill and a few blocks away from where Bill Boeing launched his first plane, a seaplane, off the end of Roanoke St. A historian didn’t have to travel far for a vein to mine.
In between licking stamps, Jules would sometimes send his employees off to do historical research. “That was definitely one of my favorite parts of that job,” wrote former employee Kitty Gibson in a Facebook comments exchange. (Kitty assisted Jules in writing about the history of street cars on Eastlake Avenue for the Eastlake News.)
Neighbors have dubbed him the mayor of Eastlake thanks to his local activism. But then again, Eastlake has had no shortage of neighborhood activists. One, Susan Kaufman, owner of Serafina and Cicchetti restaurants, had just passed away a few days before we talked, sending another shock wave through the neighborhood. I mentioned her. Jules nodded, “Whenever any issue came up, I would march right down to Serafina’s to talk to Susan about it, and we would brainstorm what to do.”
Over the years there have been many fights with city hall over countless neighborhood land use battles. From saving the Lake Union Steam Plant building that now houses ZymoGenetics, to halting the construction of large buildings over the lake, to establishing basic standards for micro housing, Jules has had a leadership role in them all.
But he’s tired of fighting city hall, especially when it comes to small business issues; however, there is one battle he’s eyeing because it’s fighting for something rather than against and that’s restoring the floating sidewalk along the Fairview Bridge. He doesn’t fully trust that the city will replace the unique walkway when they tear it and the bridge out for a new bridge in 2017.
He’ll be keeping tabs on that and on another unique feature of Lake Union, the historic Virginia V, the last operating vessel of the Mosquito Fleet, a fleet of steam ships that ferried goods and people around Puget Sound during the 1920s and 30s. He has done every volunteer position there is from crew hand to bartender and regularly give history talks as the vessel tours Lake Union. “In this neighborhood people do not understand what we have on this lake,” Jules says.
But for now, he and Scout, his faithful dog who has accompanied him to work every day, are taking a breather.
What about starting a new business? Nah, he says, although he does keep a file of “semi-bad business ideas” for every time the thought comes up.
He’s thinking actually he might like to be an employee. He might start looking for a job at the beginning of January. The grass is always greener.
He’s looking forward to doing everything he wasn’t able to do while working – getting to the Saturday Farmers Market in the U. District; he was planning to go out for his first Duck Dodge on a customer’s boat that week; and travel, who knows where, now that there’s time.
The sale at the beginning weekend of July couldn’t have been more fittingly planned to mark Jules’ newfound freedom. By the time the ink was dry on the closing documents that Saturday, Lake Union Mail had changed hands, and Lake Union itself would raise a toast. Monday was a holiday with the crowds descending around the lake for that annual celebration of independence where the evening fireworks explode and light up the sky.