VALPARAISO | Those who say you can't have fun at work never met Donna Flanagin.
As soon as customers park their cars at Flanagin's Bulk Mail on Evans Avenue in Valparaiso, they know they're in for a good time.
Customers can choose parking spots with signs that read "Friendly Zone Parking," or "Happy People Park Here," or "Reserved for Our Best Mail Customer - Yes, that's You."
But that's only a preview.
The entrance door lettering welcomes visitors to "Mainstreet U.S.A.," and once inside, customers are treated to a life-size replica of an old-fashioned Main Street façade that includes a post office, a cinema, a railroad depot, a dressmaker's shop, a Swedish bakery, a confectionery, a barber shop and a general store.
The idea started in 2009 after Flanagin attended the Disney Institute in Orlando, Fla., to learn Disney's customer service secrets to improve her mail processing business.
Once home, Flanagin decided to separate the mail processing and customer reception areas. Flanagin's daughter, Erica George, built a wall with windows between the two areas so Flanagin could still see customers entering while she worked in the back.
To add some cheer, Flanagin decorated the windows with awnings.
"It had an outdoor feel to it, so we added a street lamp made from a cardboard carpet roll," said Flanagin. "Next, we added a park bench ... and it just grew from there."
Erica George built the Main Street facade in seven months of "construction Fridays." The women found free materials and props, frequented resale shops, and bought discounted dinged and damaged materials at do-it-yourself stores.
"A lot of the materials were recycled," George said. "We tried not to buy if we didn't have to. I garbage-picked and went to garage sales. We tried to reuse things in a different way."
As Dixieland music plays in the background, the scent of baked cookies fills the air. Jars of candy sit in the window of the pink and lavender confectionery, while the dressmaker's window displays a vintage wedding dress. Marquee lights border the old-time cinema sign, and green shades dress the post office windows. A chalkboard outside the general store advertises 2 cent apples and oranges.
"There's all kinds of hidden things in here that have to do with the business and the family," Flanagin said.
Flanagin and George emphasized that the project was not an attempt to create a Disney-like exhibit.
"All of this was more because we like to make things fun," George said. "We like to have fun."