Inside the Box: The Mail Shoppe

You've got ... a big yellow mailbox
MailShoppe Proprietor

Carolyn Hough, proprietor of The Mail Shoppe, peers out from behind some UPS packages that are ready to be sent out.

When customers call Carolyn Hough asking for directions to her store, she always tells them the same thing:  Look for the big yellow mailbox. Hough, owner of The Mail Shoppe in downtown Ann Arbor, says the decorative mailbox has marked the store’s location since it first opened 26 years ago.

For Hough, owning her own mailroom wasn’t something she dreamed of as a child. Originally hailing from Rhode Island, she spent most of her career as a medical librarian, a vocation she says was “very different” from her job now. What did that entail? It was a research position – before there were computerized databases. So responding to research requests from nurses and doctors – say on the latest known effective treatment for a particular disease – entailed manually poring through indexes and literature.

Hough purchased the business in 1983 from Doug Barnett after the hospital she was working for went bankrupt. “I love it – it’s so much more fun than working at the hospital,” she said. Readers who think that packaging a bear’s head sounds more fun than rummaging through medical literature might agree with her.

The Mail Shoppe serves as a mailroom for local businesses as well as individuals. What exactly are mailroom services? One thing that can mean is folding and inserting – if there’s a giant stack of letters with a corresponding stack of envelopes, the store will fold and accurately assemble the mailing, plus apply the postage. Using the Mail Shoppe can be a cost-effective alternative to sending employees on a mail errand  – the Mail Shoppe will pick up mail  and then send it out, something Hough says “can be a lot cheaper than going to the post office.”

The Mail Shoppe also rents mailboxes to residents who might travel for months at a time and want their mail to be delivered to a safe place. The mail can then be forwarded to a temporary address. The store is an authorized UPS drop-off, and will package and mail invitations for weddings, corporate events, and university functions.

Mail Shoppe on Division Ann Arbor Michigan Yellow mailbox

Sometimes a parked vehicle obscures the distinctive yellow mailbox used as a landmark for the Mail Shoppe on Division Street.

The mail industry isn’t a lucrative business. “We make our money one penny at a time,” Hough said. As the U.S. government struggles to come up with ways to keep the postal service profitable during the recession, Hough says the change in the economy has definitely affected certain aspects of her business. “We’re doing more mailing for businesses, and less for walk-in customers,” she said.

She believes more businesses are coming to The Mail Shoppe because they don’t have the money for high-speed mailing machines or just don’t have the employees and resources to take care of daily mail. Hough’s business sees the impact of the economy in other ways, too. “During the holiday season, we noticed that people weren’t sending as many gifts as they typically would,” she said. 

With over one million pieces of mail processed each year, Hough and her employees have encountered some bizarre packaging requests. “We once mailed a bear’s head for a customer to a place where leeches were going to remove the flesh,” she said. Along with the bear’s head, Hough has mailed Shakespearean costumes, Christmas trees, countless pieces of art, and a collection of burnt pieces of wood that were going to be tested for DNA.

And then there are always the things people seem to forget when they’re visiting friends and relatives: car keys, dentures, and garage door openers. “That’s what makes this job fun, though,” said Hough. “You never know what’s going to come in and where it’s going to go to.”

The store has five employees. Some are part-time college students while others have been with the store for years. Hough owns the building that houses the store, which is located at 317 S. Division. “It’s a great location – it’s downtown but it’s also right near the university,” she said.

If you’re looking for that yellow mailbox, Hough does want to give you a warning when you find it. “Sometimes people think it’s a real mailbox, and they try to put their mail in it,” she said. “It’s solely for decoration!”

The Mail Shoppe is open 8:30 a.m to 6 p.m, Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m to 1 p.m. on Saturdays. The store can be reached at 734-665-6676 or at

About the writer: Alex Nicola-Iott, an intern with The Ann Arbor Chronicle, is studying journalism and business at Indiana University. He’s spending this summer with his family in Ann Arbor.  


  1. August 10, 2009 at 10:29 pm | permalink

    Could those be Arbor Teas packages on the counter in the photo? I think so! Go local businesses!

  2. By Joanne
    August 11, 2009 at 12:04 pm | permalink

    I’ve been with the company since they were on Williams St. I moved my mail there after moving three times in one year. It’s more convenient than a Post Office box-they’ll check your mail if you call, hold packages, box up and mail packages, and the hours are more convenient. It was very convenient because I lived in the neighborhood and worked downtown. While I now have a home out of the area, I still get 95% of my mail there. Maybe one day I’ll drop it but after 20 years of service, it’s hard to let go.

  3. By Joanne
    August 11, 2009 at 12:06 pm | permalink

    And the staff has always been very helpful!

  4. By Mary Morgan
    August 16, 2009 at 2:45 pm | permalink

    (I received an email from the shop’s previous owner, Doug Barnett, who asked me to post his comment):

    I left the U of M after thirty years in Mail Service, from clerk to eventually Manager in 1983 and opened the first private Mailing Service in downtown Ann Arbor. As the original owner of the Mail Shoppe, I opened it at 323 E. William Street in June 1983. When I opened the Mail Shoppe, we were the sole source in Ann Arbor.

    We found a niche that was badly needed to all the businesses from Main Street up to State Street and even some on South University Ave. Everyone could bring their daily mail to the Mail Shoppe and we would process it for them. The U of M Credit Union was our very first customer and still is today.

    Of course, with no local UPS center in AA, one had to drive to Ypsilanti. We offered this service and it went over like sliced bread. We were swamped with parcels every day.

    During the spring with the University students move-out, we filled a UPS semi truck daily for about two weeks everyday.

    We moved to its present location in the spring of 1988. Our original building had been sold for the Ann Arbor library addition. My brother built that yellow mailbox in 1983 and we moved it when we moved in 1988. It is definitely a symbol of the Mail Shoppe.

    We sold the home and business to Carolyn Hough in August 1998 and have been retired ever since.

    I wish continued success to Carolyn as it’s a whole new ball game today. Everyone wants a piece of this business by offering UPS and Fed Exp shipping.

    Just a few items about the history of this little business still thriving today.

    Doug Barnett
    734 665 8044