Lost Mail Is Auctioned Off At Center In Atlanta

This holiday season, close to 16 billion cards, letters and packages were delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. The vast majority of those made it to their destinations. But some of them got lost in the mail and end up at the Mail Recovery Center in Atlanta.

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And it's also been a busy holiday season for the U.S. Postal Service. It delivered nearly 16 billion cards, letters and packages. Nearly all made it to their destinations but some did not. Eventually those notes and packages will end up at the Mail Recovery Center in Atlanta.

Samara Freemark paid a visit and tells us what she found in the land of the lost.

SAMARA FREEMARK: Imagine that one day a pillow store decided to toss its entire inventory into dumpsters, and so did a store that sold only coffee makers, and one that sold only guns, one that sold baseball cards, one that sold Bibles. You get the idea. And all those stores lined up their dumpsters next to each other, hundreds of them, in one gigantic warehouse. And this is exactly what the Mail Recovery Center looks like. Anything that an American has ever stuffed into a mailbox and never seen again, is at the center. And every three weeks the center holds an auction and sells it all to people like Ricky Estavanko, who sells what he buys on eBay. He says the luckiest he ever got was right after September 11th.

Mr. RICKY ESTAVANKO: You could not buy an American flag nowhere in the United States. Everything was gone. We ended up with five boxes of McDonald's little arches with the American flag on it. McDonald's didn't even have 'em. So we come out smelling like a rose on that one.

FREEMARK: And then there's Gordon Clements. He's 80 years old, and kind of a center celebrity. He had even been mentioned on the "Jay Leno Show" once for a bin of paintings he had bought here. One of them was especially pretty - an orchid in a vase. He tried to resell it for $25. But no one wanted it.

Mr. GORDON CLEMENTS: And as they put it back on the truck, they tipped it and felt something inside the box. So one of the guys helping me took a screwdriver and took the back off of it. And inside was $5,000 worth of marijuana.

FREEMARK: We sit, and we think about what kind of person would send $5,000 worth of pot through the mail, and how that person must have felt when they heard about Clements on Leno, and whether they filed a claim for the painting, or whether they were just relieved that the post office had lost it so absolutely that it couldn't be traced back to the original sender.

Mr. LIONEL SNOW (Director, Mail Recovery Center, Atlanta): No recording devices are allowed out there at all.

FREEMARK: And just then, Lionel Snow, the director of the center, shows up and gently leads me out the door and explains why he doesn't want me recording.

Mr. SNOW: There's things that's been there since the early '50s. There's body parts possibly, ashes and stuff that's been there for years. We would like to get things back to customers, everything. But there's some that we're unable to.

FREEMARK: The auction is winding down. I walk around to the back of the building, where postal officials with forklifts are unloading bins.

(Soundbite of bins being unloaded)

FREEMARK: One buyer is hanging to the side. He says he's John Smith, though I'm pretty sure that isn't his real name. He comes to the auction a lot, and he specializes in buying books.

Mr. JOHN SMITH: We shipped a case of books one time, to us. And we got the same box, taped up. It looked like it had been through a tornado. And inside it was a bunch of screwdrivers and pliers - tools inside the same box. They just replaced it with the same weight I guess, but my books were gone.

FREEMARK: Did you ask them what happened to it?

SMITH: They just - I don't know, got lost in the mail, I guess.

FREEMARK: I stand there and I watch the river of other people's things pouring out of the loading docks and into trucks and moving vans.

Those clothes you shipped home from college and never saw again. That perfume your grandmother swore up and down she sent you for your birthday. The model Eiffel Tower that your dad airmailed you from Paris. All those things you thought were lost forever - they're all here. They're all in Atlanta. And they're all going home with someone else.

For NPR News, I'm Samara Freemark.

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