By Cricket Desmarais
So you need to send a day’s worth of freshly caught fish to your cousin in Kansas, or your late Aunt Sally’s Tiffany barware that your brother wants for his wedding, or you’ve promised your daughter, who’s hospitalized 400 miles away, a weekly care package.
A.) Stand in line for 45 minutes to be growled at by one of two overtired federal employees trying to do five people’s jobs? or
B.) Stroll up to a counter staffed with kind faces and candy after being greeted by cool dogs and good tunes?
If you chose B (and why wouldn’t you?) you’ve likely come across Pak Mail, 1200 Fourth St., Key West. And you’ve probably met John Strong and his dog, Bonnie, part Catahoula leopard, part pit bull and part blue tick coonhound from Marrvelous Pet Rescues in Key Largo.
“My dogs spend all day with me at Pak Mail, being the official mascots and greeters,” Strong said.
Strong opened his franchise in 2004, having circled back to the Keys after happily working at the Sheraton in Key Largo from 1992 to ’98. He had left the Keys only because the hotel company transferred him to a resort general manager job in Orlando, then to Jekyll Island, Georgia.
“Living by the ocean has always been in my blood,” says the Halifax, Nova Scotia native who lives on a houseboat.
When the hotel sold in 2004, Strong came back to the Keys with a plan to combine his hotel biz know-how and customer service savvy in a venture of his own. Upon realizing that a Florida Keys guesthouse was beyond his — and nearly everyone else’s — budget, he thought out of the box and found his new future.
“While doing my research, I utilized the services of the UPS Store for faxing, notarizing, mailing, etc. and I eventually saw the allure of owning such a business,” he said.
Strong’s Pak Mail business serves residential and business customers including those who need to ship internationally. He also expertly handles the ongoing or one-time logistics, and he won’t scoff at anything that needs packing, no matter how clunky, heavy, fragile or perishable. Lobster, anyone?
“What makes Pak Mail interesting is that no two customers are alike and no two shipments are alike,” he says. “One day we’re shipping a ship’s model for a member of Ronald Reagan’s cabinet and the next day we’re sending postcards for some tourists from the Netherlands. Every day is a surprise.”
Like the time he shipped hundreds of Shel Silverstein’s books, artwork and musical instruments to the archives in Chicago from the author’s Key West hurricane-hit house only to have Silverstein’s sister offer him her brother’s iconic desk.
“I jumped at the chance,” he says. “I have been offered $10,000 to sell the desk, but I would never do that. It is now a fixture in our store.”
They’ve shipped the collection of Tennessee Williams paintings from the Custom House Museum to three different museums for exhibits and arranged for their return. They’ve shipped a quilt insured for $300,000. They’ve shipped contraceptive devices to the Virgin Islands.
“That was an interesting paradox,” he recalled.
With summertime a bit slower, Strong’s business also includes U-Haul rentals. Between packages, rental mailboxes and people’s needs for U-Hauls, Strong has seen it all.
“U-Haul customers are somewhat different from Pak Mail customers,” he said. “We had a guy rent a box truck once for one day and he kept it for three months. He’d cut a rectangular hole in the side of the truck, installed an air conditioner and was living in it.”
Strong keeps his sense of humor intact and his demeanor steady by feeding his love of travel. He’s already crossed 65 countries off his bucket list, has spent nearly half a year in Africa, did a safari in Kenya, a hot air balloon ride at sunrise over the Maasai Mara, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, and traveled by train from Shanghai to Beijing, China to Mongolia, through Siberia, ending in Moscow.
“My last trip was to a friend’s 6,000-acre cattle and horse ranch outside of Belo Horizonte, Brazil,” he said. “My next travels will hopefully be in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. I want to take the train from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi.”
Customers must sense Strong’s undeniable work ethic and reliability because they often turn to him for services not listed on the franchise website.
“Numerous times, customers have called from up north and asked me to go to their house in Key West, open the front door with the key hidden under the flower pot or door mat, turn off the alarm using the code they provide, remove a painting or other personal item, and bring it back to Pak Mail to ship to them,” he says.
“That is what is special about Key West,” he says. “Everybody knows everybody.”
What’s special about Key West is that people like John Strong live here.
What’s your superpower? Spelling and typing (65 words per minute).
What’s something you’d like to learn? Piano.
What’s the last package you received? Solar-powered Christmas tree (I mount it on an anchored floating platform behind my houseboat in the bay … for all my neighbors to enjoy).
Any advice for holiday gift-shippers? Ship early (although I make more money off the last-minute Xmas shippers 😃).Words to live by? Never assume.