TWO-LANE LIFE - The Mail Pre-Sort Business - By Lisa Hayes-Minney

My Uncle Roscoe was the postmaster at the post office on the south side of Parkersburg for many years. I still have many of the uncirculated stamp collections he gave my cousins and me at Christmas when we were kids. My Aunt Sybil, his wife, and Gary, his son owned an advertising business, back in the 1980s, when bulk mailings were just becoming a thing. Among the three of them, they learned very quickly the meaning of “a penny saved is a penny earned.” When you can save the client five cents per piece on a 10,000-piece mailing--and charge them two cents a piece to do it, you understand how important postage rates can be.

One way to save money on bulk mailings is to pre-sort the mail. Band together all pieces heading to the same state, zip code, local delivery run, before delivering them to the post office. The discounts can be significant when you deal with five to fifty thousand pieces a week.

When my older sister graduated high school, Roscoe and Sybil gave her the idea and knowledge required to start her own business—a mail pre-sort business. She set up sorting cabinets and bins in a spare room in the back of my father’s locksmith shop. And then she offered larger companies and organizations in Marietta, Ohio the deal: we’ll save you nickels, and charge you pennies to pick up your mail, pre-sort it, and deliver it to the post office the same day. Pennies saved per piece, and often, faster delivery times. Some of the smaller businesses wouldn’t have qualified for bulk rates on their own, but combined with the others’ mail under our business bulk mailing permit, all clients qualified.

During my junior and senior year of high school, I worked for my sister. My senior year, I had study hall as my final class for the day and got permission to leave school early for work. My sister ran the early pickup run while I was at school, and I drove the late pickup run, driving around Marietta, picking up trays and bins of mail. Marietta Memorial Hospital, Marietta College, several banks, doctor’s offices, the Hallmark Store, and Washington County Courthouse.

I would return then, to my sister in the back-room business, who was already sorting the mail from her early collection, and within just a few hours, we had thousands of pieces of mail broken down into their assigned destinations. After a just few days of sorting, we had each bin location memorized, each slot and tray, and we sang along to Top 40s on the radio while we shuffled and sorted. The post office had a hard-set time when we had to be there for same-day shipment, and very rarely were we early. Many evenings we frantically crossed the Muskingum River bridge between the west side and downtown in a last-minute dash to the Front Street post office.

This was in the early 80s, and I imagine such businesses went by the wayside as faxing, email etc. emerged. All the reasons that bulk mailings became less popular, that snail mail fell out of fashion—these likely made pre-sorting businesses a thing of the past. But also, the postal service began investing in automated pre-sorting machines.

Imagine my surprise when I heard these pre-sorting machines have been removed from many post offices. These former mechanical marvels, moved to federal warehouses to collect dust, or dismantled and sold for scrap. In a year spackled with questionable decisions, how 2020 is that?!

It wouldn’t be feasible in a rural area, but in a city like Parkersburg, Morgantown, or Clarksburg, now might be the time to bring back the mail pre-sorting business. If a 20-year-old and her 16-year-old sister could do it, I imagine it would be a good big-city self-employment option these days. Anyone with a car, a small space, and an understanding of bulk mailing rates could do it. And apparently, the biggest competitor has just been sold for scrap.

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