ARIPEKA — The return of mail service is making it a holiday season to be especially thankful for in the old fishing town of Aripeka.
Lorraine Pepito, 63, boiled down the joy and relief her community is feeling as she picked up her mail Monday for the first time in months at the historic post office that is the heart of the place she loves.
"It's heaven. I'm in heaven," she said cradling the small stack.
It may seem like exalted words for something many take for granted, but the Pasco side of coastal Aripeka, which straddles the county line with Hernando, doesn't get home delivery from the U.S. Postal Service. Instead, for decades residents relied on their post office boxes at the local branch, making it a hub for chit-chat and togetherness.
So when the Postal Service closed the site in September amid a dispute with the owner of the building on Aripeka Road, it tore at the tight-knit community's heart. Residents of the mostly elderly neighborhood also fretted over making the 15-mile round trip to the post office in Hudson, where their boxes were moved.
"It's a happy day for us Aripekans," said Ann Rock, 67, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than four decades. "We're just so happy to have it back, thank God."
The months of strain came to an end Monday as the branch re-opened, thanks to lifelong resident Carl Norfleet, who for many years ran Aripeka's general store. The 71-year-old recently bought the property that holds the post office from his cousin, Louise Geiger, another lifelong resident, who said the terms of her lease with the Postal Service became too onerous.
Norfleet made the purchase saying he was willing to take on the lease for the good of the town that has been so good to him. He put $1,500 into a new coat of paint and other renovations at the site and told the Tampa Bay Times Aripeka can go back to focusing on when the tide is coming in and when the red snapper are biting.
"We're whole again," he said.