Sometimes, people really do want to feel like a number. For residents of Hope, Minn., that number is 56046.

That's the ZIP code for this half-mile stretch of houses, storefronts and railroad tracks 10 miles south of Owatonna. It's one of about 100 small towns in Minnesota, and about 3,700 towns nationwide, that may lose their post offices as the U.S. Postal Service tries to balance its budget. It's fair to say that some of Hope's 90 or so citizens are skeptical of their role as economic saviors.

"They say that can save some $20,000 a year by closing the post office," said Dale Wilker, who owns HopeFull Treasures on Main Street. "That's against the $5 billion to $7 billion that they were short last year. I mean, our $20,000 isn't going to make a dent in that."

The Hope post office is slated to close sometime after May 15, although there is one last round of citizen appeals. So Hope still has, well, hope.

Yet many residents seem resigned to life becoming a little less convenient, a little less neighborly. Mostly, they know that just as when the dance hall shut down and the school closed, Hope is destined to lose a little more of its identity.

Picking up more than mail

At 73, Lori Thiele is younger than the post office building in which she works, with its turn-of-the-20th-century false front, clapboard siding and a front porch with benches for sitting and visiting when the weather's nice. Thiele has been an OIC, or officer in charge, since 1998, after serving for a time as a PMR, or postmaster relief. Everyone just calls her Lori.

"Morning, Victor," she says to Victor Mrotz, who owns Hope Creamery, the biggest building in town (the dance hall was on the second floor). Steele County once called itself the butter capital of the world, claiming that its 26 creameries worked out to more per square mile than anywhere else.

Today, only Hope Creamery remains, making butter with a national reputation. Mrotz likes walking over to get his mail, "and for the older people, it's really nice," he said. "They get their stamps and such, as well as get a little information about what's going on, in terms of everyone dropping off a little info. That's an unfigurably important benefit, the neighborly aspect."

Neighborliness is what sends Thiele running out from behind the counter when she sees a particular car pull up. The elderly customer has fallen before, "and I don't want her to fall again," Theile said. "If I see she has money in her hand, I grab a book of stamps."

Because she's a common factor of most everyone's day, Thiele has become Hope's unofficial historian. She assembled the centennial scrapbook in 2006. If someone dies, she's likely to post a small note next to her window. "People come in and ask, 'Have you heard, is so-and-so OK?'" she said. "People are willing to let me know what's going on first."

That's the thing about a small town's post office. It's a place where everyone knows one another, because it's a place no stranger would go.

'It's where you live, right?'

David Fluegel studies small towns. As the community program specialist for the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota, Morris, Fluegel tracks how a community's perceptions shape its reality, and vice versa. While residents grieve the loss of any service, losing a post office is hard because "that's how people write their address," he said.

But a town chooses how it responds, Fluegel said. "If you're going to be living with a certain amount of hope for the future, you have to develop a vision for that future, and a degree of tolerance about change," he said. "Because it's where you live, right?"

A post office is less significant than it once was because there are other methods of communication now, he said. More crucial is its role as a social hub.

"There needs to be something else to take that place, and that's where it really makes the difference whether this is a nail in the coffin or not -- whether people say, 'It is what it is, and I'm still going to make the most of living in this space.'"

Postmark: Hope

This past Christmas season brought more business to the post office, as usual, as people from across the country, even overseas, sent bundles of holiday greetings for Thiele to stamp with the "Hope" postmark.

More packages got mailed, too, but that's been happening no matter the time of year as more people shop online. Yet the Internet revolution also is what's brought Hope, and the Postal Service, to this critical point. As fewer people use the mail to pay their bills, write to their moms, or order their garden seeds, the post office makes less money.

Here are some numbers: At a community meeting last summer called by the Postal Service, officials said that about 200 pieces of mail are delivered to Hope each day, and 22 pieces are mailed out, according to a story in the Nrheg Star-Eagle. They said that the office has only 1.6 hours of work per day, yet is open six hours a day, five days a week, with two hours on Saturday.

That's six days that Thiele comes to work, yet at 32 hours, she's part-time. As to benefits, every so often someone brings her a plate of cookies.

The bottom line? The USPS said that in 2010, the Hope post office cost $29,000 to operate, plus $3,000 to lease the space. Revenue tallied $23,599. No way that math pans out.

Not the magic bullet, but ...

Pete Nowacki, a spokesman for the USPS in Minneapolis, has his hands full responding to concerns about post office closings here and elsewhere across the country. One day, he talked to 46 reporters, he said. "We're asking people to change the way they do business, and that's never easy."

If the Hope office closes, some mail services will move to Krause Feeds and Supply on the south edge of town, Nowacki said. Portable mailboxes may be rented; otherwise, stops will be added to the route of the rural delivery carrier, who also will deliver and sort the mail at Krause's.

Residents still could mail letters and buy stamps, but there would only be limited package service for Priority Mail flat-rate boxes.

And this all saves money?

"Yes, it does," Nowacki said, noting that if all the proposed closings take place, the savings could be $200 million. "It's not the magic bullet that's going to push us back in the black, but it's a significant sum of money. And we're in a position in our history where we've got to look at everything."

Wilker, one of Hope's best cheerleaders, says that closing post offices still won't fix the problems he sees in USPS management. But, he acknowledged, "we don't have the business, and I can see that."

Hoping against hope

Wilker is a boomerang resident: He grew up in the area, moved away, then moved back from Massachusetts as his family grew. "We were going to stay in Hope for three years -- and that was in 1979," Wilker said, now retired from the Farmers' State Bank.

As he spoke, he stacked books in HopeFull Treasures, a hodgepodge of collectibles, curiosities, record albums and books. Without a post office, he said, he'll have to mail packages from Ellendale or Owatonna, "which is 10 miles either way. So it's 10 minutes to Owatonna, then another 10 minutes to get to the post office, then another 10 minutes to stand in line -- because there's always a line, I don't care what time you go."

Wilker said his main concern is Hope's identity. But its identity always has been the stuff of varying stories.

Jane Engel, who works at Krause's, heard that the name came about because the town was built on a soggy slough, causing people to say, "I hope it won't sink." (The inside joke is that the feed store, located just past the town boundary, is considered "beyond Hope.")

Wilker said he'd heard that the name came from settlers who said, "I hope the train stops here."

Thiele prefers the version that goes this way: One group of people started building from the north and another began building from the south and they said, "We'll meet in the middle and hope to have a town."

They did, and still do, and hope to keep writing 56046 for a while longer.

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185