Adventures in bookkeeping

I’m on sabbatical for the 2014-15 academic year, and spending it in Seattle: i.e., 1900 miles away from Minneapolis. Relocating for ~15 months poses a number of logistical problems — most of which I won’t bore you with — but there’s one that I suspect will resonate with many of the folks who are likely to read this blog: i.e., what to do with all the books?

Like a lot of academics, I own a lot of books. When I packed up my belongings earlier this year so that I could store the stuff that I wasn’t bringing west with me, the books alone filled 40 small boxes (“small” being the official label that moving/shipping companies use for boxes that an average-sized adult could plausibly wrap their arms around). That’s not counting the books that stayed in my campus office.

I knew, of course, that I didn’t need 40 boxes of books with me in Seattle. No matter how much reading and research and writing I could accomplish in 15 months, most of those books would remain untouched, I wouldn’t have room for them in my one-bedroom sabbatical apartment, and they’d be ridiculously expensive to ship. But I also knew that I would need and/or want at least some of those books…

…and so, before leaving Minneapolis, I made some brutal decisions about which books to bring with me, and which to leave behind. I winnowed the Seattle pile down to a mere four boxes, and tried not to worry too much about the inevitable moment down the line when I would desperately need to lay my hands on some book that I knew I owned — but that was sitting in a box half a continent away.

Moreover, because I knew there was only so much stuff that I could fit into my very tiny car (Mini Coopers are wonderful in all sorts of ways, but hauling capacity is not one of them), I knew I would need to ship several boxes of my stuff separately. Including all four of those boxes of books.

Big mistake.

The US Postal Service can do some wonderful things. But they failed me this time. In a very big way. I trusted them with four previously unused boxes that were well padded, tightly sealed, properly labeled, and (though quite heavy) well within the official limits for Media Mail. I sent those four boxes on their merry way to the Pacific Northwest in mid-May.

The one that actually arrived looked like it had been kicked around by a small army of gorillas for a few days.

box 1

The other three … well … their fate remains something of a mystery to me. The USPS was quick to report that the missing packages had been damaged in transit and sent to the inaccurately named Mail Recovery Center for processing. Different postal employees — most of whom have been very nice and very sympathetic — have offered different theories on whether “damaged in transit” means that the missing boxes were ripped to shreds by automated handling machinery, or if they’d simply lost their address labels but were otherwise mostly intact. Either way, though, whatever remains of my boxes and their contents is supposedly somewhere in the mysterious Mail Recovery Center facility in Atlanta.

One might think that, if the Postal Service could verify this much, that it should be possible for them to tell me something more about the actual fate of my books, and maybe even get some of them to me after all. But that would depend on there being a system in place here that was actually designed to help people recover their missing/damaged/waylaid packages. Which is not the case at all.

To be sure, there are multiple mechanisms in place whereby folks like me can contact the USPS about these sorts of problems. Since May, I’ve talked with postal employees at three or four completely different versions of customer service, I’ve personally visited at least three different post office branches, and I’ve filed at least three different reports describing the boxes and their contents in detail. None of these mechanisms, however, is designed so that it puts customers in touch with anyone who’s directly connected to the Mail Recovery Center. Instead, I’ve been told that once I’ve filed my reports, all I can do is wait for the good people in Atlanta to do their job, which should — eventually — mean that at least some of my missing stuff gets sent to me. Though I was also told that 90 days was a normal processing time for such things … and we passed the 90-day mark more than a month ago.

So I’m now assuming that 75% of the books I had selected as absolutely vital to have for my sabbatical are now lost to me forever. Or at least until I can sloooowly reacquire them independently of the Postal Service.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *