In picturesque Bainbridge Island, Washington, a small town just a 35-minute ferry ride from Seattle, lush forest flora and ocean sunsets aren’t the only scenic vistas residents and visitors enjoy. More than 100 quirky, artistic, and often deeply meaningful mailboxes line the neighborhoods’ streets.
Brothers Jim and Dick Strom turned a 1948 Packard sedan into a massive family mailbox for the three generations who live on their sprawling property. A married couple whose home is directly across from the shoreline erected a miniature lighthouse. The one-of-a-kind boxes do much more than add levity to morning walks, according to resident Denise Stoughton — they’re part of the fabric of the community.
“Historically, the island has been home to an eclectic band of creatives and eccentrics,” Stoughton told Nice News, adding: “I believe the quirky mailboxes are, and always have been, a natural extension of the personalities at the other end of the driveway.”
Stoughton is so captivated by the mailboxes’ expressiveness that she’s in the process of writing a book about them, titled Meet Me at the Mailbox: The Fabulous Mailboxes of Bainbridge Island, a compilation of origin stories, photographs, and illustrations by Utah-based watercolor artist Shelley Wallace Ylst.
Having lived on the island for about six years, Stoughton began working on the project after moving into a different area of the community. “In April 2022, I moved to a new neighborhood and the Sinking Ferry Mailbox was down the street,” she said. “That was the one mailbox where I was like, ‘OK, I have so many questions!’ That afternoon, the idea of writing a book about mailboxes settled firmly in my mind.”
Stoughton has an eye for aesthetics and a deep appreciation for the arts: She graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and built a career in interior and home product design. That background has informed her response to the mailboxes. “The interactive relationship between people and their environment creates a unique energy, a vibration — [it’s] the DNA of a place,” she explained. “New York City taught me to see and appreciate iconic cultural totems as well as cultural minutia.”
One of the newest additions is based on a popular video game. “Earlier this year, I moved in with an elderly friend to help him be able to stay in his home longer and to help me with expenses while I work on the book and do other writing,” Stoughton shared. “He’s a nonagenarian with a beautiful home on the waterfront in a lovely HOA. In the spirit of funky mailboxes, he decided on a crazy Super Mario Brothers theme, replete with an eight-car pile-up in the back.”
The author has also spearheaded a related initiative, influenced by another mailbox on another island. On Bird Island, North Carolina, the Kindred Spirit Mailbox has stood for over three decades. Beside it is a bench, and inside it, a notebook in which visitors write down their feelings, dreams, worries, memories, or anything else on their mind. The famed landmark has inspired a Nicholas Sparks novel, and, as of very recently, two “sister” mailboxes on Bainbridge Island, which Stoughton worked with the local parks and recreation district to install.
In a piece for Life in Brunswick County, she shared about her “bipostal mailboxing adventure,” a play on words to describe her journey visiting the original Kindred Spirit Mailbox on the East Coast before bringing the concept back to Washington.
“The first was installed along a trail in a beautiful park, on a ridge overlooking the Puget Sound with the intention the journals would be archived in our historical museum,” she told Nice News. The second, finished in September, is at the The Bainbridge Island Historical Museum, which Stoughton explained is “easily accessible to visitors who walk on the ferry from downtown Seattle and to those who may not physically be able to hike into the woods to visit the [other mailbox].”
The blank notebooks inside “provide people with an action to take, a modality of expression, a way to release a burden or an emotion by visiting the mailboxes and writing an anonymous journal entry,” she said. “Everything from profound emotion, heartbreaking loss, gratitude in the face of hardships, joy, love, or a simple message of kindness to the next kindred spirit.”
Stoughton went on to share that “given the individual and communal healing, sharing, and connection,” she believes “every city should install and steward at least one.”