The bright yellow posters reading, “This is a Contract Postal Unit (Google It),”
are the first sign that this is no typical post office. Adorning the entry is a collage of pictures, posters, Yelp reviews of other post offices, Island maps and information. Flat-rate priority mail boxes become neon orange signage with sizes and prices displayed in kidnapping ransom letters; diagrammed hula poses are thrown in. Behind the service counter is Dug Miller (“I don’t need superfluous vowels,” he says. “There are too many Doug Millers in this world.”), the man responsible for the décor. Since Dug took over the Keauhou Post Office in July 2015, he’s turned this most banal of government spaces into a showcase for Hawaiiana, Island nostalgia and postal art. “This is what happens,” says Miller by way of explanation, “when the USPS turns over the keys to a … Disney Imagineer.”
Born in Casablanca, Morocco, Miller spent his first ten years yachting the French and Italian Rivieras with the Grimaldi Royal Family of Monaco. Then his family moved to Norfolk, Virginia. “Basically Liverpool without the Beatles,” he says. “I got out as fast as possible.” He studied film art at the California Institute of the Arts and from there went on to do design work for world’s fairs. His creativity caught the attention of Disney Imagineering—a division of right-brained engineers—and Dug was hired. For the next twenty years, he helped design Disney theme park attractions. In the ’80s, he made his first visit to Hawai‘i with a friend who was writing a book on the history of tiki and learned to love the Islands’ art—both high and low-brow. Tired of life in LA, he packed up and moved to Kona in 2001.
After the 2008 crash, Dug spent a lot of time down at the Keauhou Post Office shipping the Disney collectibles he was selling on eBay and questioning the wisdom of early retirement. When there was a job opening at the PO, Dug took it—why not?—and worked there full-time until the former postmaster handed over the keys three years ago. Dug describes his life’s unexpected turns as “kind of like a Kurt Vonnegut novel.”
Today it’s just him and three coworkers at the PO, a pared-down affair with tight budgets and few machines—they still use analog scales and cell phones instead of official USPS machines. But operating a PO lacking the latest technology requires the kind of creative problem-solving at which Dug excels. “It’s basically candle making and horseshoe making compared to what they have at the real post offices,” he says.
Every Saturday morning before the post office opens, “I go garage sale-ing for iconic treasures of the Hawai‘i story we are all living,” says Dug. His best finds—most Hawai‘i- or postal-themed—adorn the main service room and are in constant rotation. There are trophy billfish, board games featuring the Hawaiian Islands, vintage Kona Coffee Festival posters, album covers featuring Pele, antique luggage. A bowl full of red pens sits on a lava-black side table, reminiscent of a glowing caldera; peepholes in a gray cabinet open onto backlit dioramas with action figures; a tiny postman peeks from behind the fronds of a hanging plant. The garbage cans are adorned with room number placards from erstwhile Hawai‘i hotels. There are nearly a dozen different ways to get the staff’s attention—a rotation of traditional tap-to-ring bells, hand bells, cowbells, a gong.
Kitsch aside, there’s genuine fun to postal work. “When you think about the weirdest most craziest names—like I.P. Daily—there are really people who have those names! You just have to try not to crack up when you hand them their mail,” Dug says. And playful as he is, Dug takes his responsibility seriously. “Our post office guests include a wide cross-section of humanity,” he says, “from the famous to the homeless … I know the mail is a vital life-line, especially on such a secluded island volcano in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Even in the internet era, everybody goes to the post office.” HH