WARREN - Today is nationally the busiest day of mailing, but there wasn't really a quiet before the holiday storm of cards and gifts at the Warren Post Office.
This season I only had one Christmas package to mail to a sister in Louisville, Ky. I'm always nervous to botch the address on packages or letters that I have to mail. Thursday night was no exception.
I sealed the box of goodies with several strips of red duct tape, and rewrote my sister's address on a new label after forgetting to add her box number on a first attempt.
Package in tow, I headed downtown to the Warren Post Office on Main Street Friday morning. With its Doric columns and strong facade, the 1936 building carries an aura of aged historic grandeur inside and out.
Construction on the office, then called the Federal Building, began in 1935. It cost $225,000 to build based on a design by local architects Keith O'Brien and Boucherie.
Somewhere along the way, murals were added to the brass and marble lobby that depict iron and steel making in the Valley. They harken back to the age in which the office was new.
Tribune Chronicle / Margaret Thompson
The Warren Post Office sorts thousands of letters and parcels daily. During the holiday season, 14.7 billion cards, letters and packages are mailed with more than 600 million pieces processed today alone.
Here, beneath the unnecessarily high ceilings, with its dim lights, and surrounded by rows of hundreds of post office boxes, I was greeted by Tom Copkash. He is currently filling in as the officer in charge, while being the regular postmaster at the Niles Post Office.
At 8 a.m., the lobby was pretty bare - the drop-off windows weren't to open for another half hour - but workers behind the scenes had already been on the clock for several hours. Between 4 and 5 a.m., sorted deliveries of mail and parcels were made overnight from Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Youngstown and a network distribution site in Warrendale, Pa.
Machines at these locations have read the addresses of each letter and printed a location bar code onto them - which comes in handy as the letters continue on their journeys. Next came the carriers who arrived about 7 a.m. to sift through their own batches of about 1,400 parcels and letters.
Sitting in Copkash's office, he described the influx of mail for the holiday season. Nearly 15 billion pieces of mail are expected to be delivered nationally between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve. More than 600 million pieces will be processed today alone.
"Of course the volume increases, packages increase tremendously. We'll probably have about a 10 to 15 percent increase over last year," he said. "Everyone is busy, there's no down time or time to think of anything other than sorting that mail and getting it delivered."
The main Warren Post Office and a second Warren location on state Route 169, process 100,000 letters, several thousand packages and several thousand large envelopes and "flats" (which are basically magazines) on average per day. They cover several city ZIP codes, including 44483, 44484 and 44485; this makes up not only the city and township but also Lordstown, Champion and Howland.
Before heading into the back for a quick tour and then to mail my package, I asked Copkash if there are any misconceptions people have about what goes on at the post office.
"Maybe a misconception is how much goes into sorting the mail and getting it to its destination, and for only 46 cents; I think that's a bargain," he said.
It's a misconception I am sure not to have again, after we stepped through the private access door into the mailroom. The wide open room with equally lofted ceilings was a hive of activity.
Booths with address slots line either side of the room and hampers full of packages crowded the center of the floor. Boxes and padded mailer envelopes were tossed from one hamper to the next as they were sifted.
Within the confines of their individual booths, the carriers quickly shuffled trays of hundreds of letters into in-route order, aka "delivery point sequence." Each carrier will make between 400 and 600 stops on their approximately eight-hour route, so having the parcels in order is crucial. With the influx over the holidays, it can get hectic.
"It usually gets crazy. The packages go crazy," Chuck Thiry said.
He's going on 29 years as a carrier and flew through rearranging the letters and packages he will deliver. The whirlwind of sorting is handled by less than 100 people at the office. Once they're in order, letters were returned to the trays and wheeled outside with packages through the large swinging doors at the back of the building.
Here, Cal Williams straddled a gap between the back bumper of his mail truck and the platform where he had wheeled out his carts of packages and letters. Back and forth from one to the other, he stacked and shuffled the parcels into place.
On average, Copkash said each carrier has about two full hampers to deliver.
"I go from the beginning up front to the end in the back," Williams said.
He has a system, as do each of the carriers, though from my perspective, remembering what goes where looked simply intimidating.
Copkash stopped to explain that the 32 trucks at this location, combined with others at the second Warren location, run 56 city routes and seven rural routes - one of which is 56 miles long. A few trucks down, Alicen Lawrence had just begun preparing for her route.
"This is probably the busiest season I've seen so far," she said, of the nine years she's been a carrier.
When they're ready to go, each carrier grabbed a scanner from its cradle inside so they could track the packages and priority mail as they were delivered. The Post Office is equipped with wireless scanners, so there is real-time notification when parcels arrive at another station or at their final destination.
Back inside, a few carriers sorted out mail into the P.O. boxes located at the office.
"It can be stressful and crazy. It's kind of fun though to make sure everything gets there before Christmas," said Sandy Musser, who's worked 20 years at the post office.
By 8:30 a.m., all of the local mail that will be delivered for the day had passed through the building and was heading onto the streets.
"We have a lot of seasoned carriers who are prepared for the elements; it only comes once a year. Most go into the season with a good attitude and come out of it with a good attitude," Copkash said.
It was then time for the post office's counters to open to take in packages and international mail. Copkash led me behind two of the counters where a pair of ladies straightened their Santa caps and got their desk space in order before they lifted the windows' covers.
We stopped to say hello to Stephanie Sipusic of Boardman, who mans the counter where priority boxes and stamps are sold.
"It's just one person after another. We sell a lot of stamps and mail a lot of overseas packages or to the military bases," she said of the holiday season. "There can be a long line, but we try to help everyone out and they seem understanding."
Now that the counters were open, we headed around to the front side of Sipusic's counter with my package to be mailed. There was already a short line forming.
Copkash explained the office's "Letters to Santa" program while we waited. A small box between two of the delivery windows is placed each holiday season for children to drop off letters for Father Christmas. A worker at the office then writes a response and sometimes even sends the letter to the North Pole for a postmark before it is sent back to the children.
We also discussed the second floor that remains gated off and contains a few conference rooms, the credit union that operates out of the basement with the maintenance crew, and the historic stamp club that used to meet in the mezzanine.
Once we made it to the front of the line, Sipusic weighed the brown box and gave me a few options - next day delivery, two days or priority/standard mail. I don't need the gift there until Christmas, but the latter two options are the same price: $7.60. A swipe of my credit card and she stamped the box to be on its way.
Copkash and I snuck around back again and he took the box from Sipusic's desk to the bin in which it will wait until being transported to the Warrendale, Pa. Origin Sorting Center. Following the tracking number online, the package made it to Pennsylvania about 6 p.m. that day and then through another center in Louisville by about 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
It should have arrived at its final post office in Louisville by now. It will probably be tossed about by a few Kentucky carriers early today before being stowed in the back of a mail truck.
It will arrive with plenty of time before Christmas, just as Sipusic predicted. Now that my single package is taken care of, I should be onto my card writing. Hopefully those will make it in time, too.