What a difference a penny makes.
Responding to Sunday's 1-cent increase in the cost of mailing a first-class letter, postal customers snatched up millions of penny stamps in the last two days -- and sent clerks scurrying for more.
"It's like a panic," said Crystal Brown, a retail clerk in the Catonsville post office, which ran out of 1-cent stamps three times Monday and had none left for early customers yesterday.
Throughout the region, lines of frustrated customers snaked through post offices, and frazzled employees put up hand-drawn signs announcing they were sold out of the 1-cent stamps needed to make up for the increase in postage, from 32 to 33 cents.
"We've gone through rate changes before, but this one is kind of crazy," said Angela Crawley, customer services supervisor at the Columbia Post Office on Oak Hall Lane. "We're trying to tell people to go ahead and use the 33-cent stamps and wait to buy the 1-cent stamps. The 32-cent stamps aren't going to go bad."
But as lines at the post offices grew longer, tempers grew shorter.
"You'd think that they'd supply" enough, said Kathlyn McCann, of Columbia, who trekked to the main Columbia post office to buy about 40 penny stamps after coming up empty-handed at a branch in the Columbia Town Center.
In Westminster, a new batch of 1-cent stamps was supposed to have been delivered to the post office yesterday afternoon, but by 3 p.m. that had changed, and more weren't expected until later in the week.
Dawn Weeks of Westminster said she couldn't wait: Her homeowner's insurance payment and other important bills had to be mailed. Weeks said she put stamps on the bills Saturday and didn't learn until Sunday that she needed the extra penny postage.
"I had to buy 3-cents -- a whole sheet -- and they're not going to be any good for anything. It's ridiculous," she said.
The panic took U.S. Postal Service officials by surprise.
The Postal Service printed 2.5 billion of the 1-cent stamps in anticipation of Sunday's rate increase, said spokesman Roy Betts. Ten billion H series stamps -- worth 33 cents -- also were printed.
Baltimore postal officials ordered 4.5 million of the 1-cent stamps in November. But demand was so heavy that on Monday officials ordered an additional 2.7 million 1-cent stamps to ensure that the district's 349 post offices wouldn't run out, said Helen Skillman, a department spokeswoman.
Even so, it wasn't enough, said Michael Furey, postmaster for the Baltimore district, as post offices throughout the area ran out. "The demand was greater than we expected," he said.
Although a bit of confusion always follows a rate change, Furey speculated that the small size of this most recent increase prompted people to buy more 1-cent stamps than they need.
"People are saying, 'Give me two or three dollars' worth,'" he said. "That's 200 or 300 stamps."
Bill Dailey, postmaster at the Highland branch since 1993, said people have been asking for as many as 700 1-cent stamps. "It was like another world," he said.
At the Riderwood post office, which ran out of 1-cent stamps early Monday, clerks were asking customers to reconsider how many stamps they need, noting that unused stamps can't be cashed in. "I think some are confused as to how many are on a roll," said Postmaster Vivian Cottingham.
But Jules Stern, a Canton resident who bought 200 1-cent stamps at the Towson post office yesterday, insisted he needed all of them -- maybe more. "I've got lots and lots of 32-cent stamps left," he said. "I may need more."
Post office clerks reported doing as much business in the last two days as they did at the peak of the holiday rush.
"It's like we just got a big snow blizzard and everyone has rushed to Giant to purchase all the bread and milk on the shelves," said A.L. Bundy, acting postmaster at Columbia's main post office on Oak Hall Road. "It's a buying frenzy. It's as simple as that."
Bundy estimated that business has doubled since the rate increase. Columbia's main branch received 300,000 extra penny stamps yesterday morning and was expected to get another 1.2 million by day's end.
In Butler in northern Baltimore County, lines formed at the tiny post office that serves 200 families and shares its space with the community's liquor store. Postmaster Raphael Cameron said he had sold about 4,000 of the 1-cent stamps.
While most of the frustration stemmed from the shortage of penny stamps, that wasn't the only aggravation facing some of the area's postal customers.
In Westminster, people who attempted to purchase a book of the new H series stamps for $6.60 from a vending machine were out of luck: The machine would not return more than $5 in change, and it wouldn't accept the Treasury Department's new $20 bill.
Sun staff writers Mary Gail Hare, Edward Lee, Sheridan Lyons, Amy Oakes and Erika Niedowski contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 1/13/99