LONG BEACH — Evelyn Nurse arrived recently at the crowded downtown post office and waited 20 minutes to buy Christmas stamps, only to be told by a clerk to take a number and wait some more.
"This is the worst line I've ever seen," Nurse said angrily before stomping out of the lobby. "If I take a number, I'll be here for an hour."
Less than a mile away in the World Trade Center, there's a new post office branch where she probably could have walked up to the counter and bought stamps immediately.
There, amid white walls covered with art and expansive tiled floors, three clerks with time on their hands chat amiably. They say they know most of their customers by name.
One of the customers, Leslie Calkins, works at a nearby construction site and comes by regularly to pick up her company's mail. "It's great here," Calkins said. "I like it because it's always deserted."
The same thing that makes customers such as Calkins happy, however, is causing concern for postal officials. Four months after opening, the sleek new post office--the city's first new one in eight years--is drawing far fewer customers than expected and costing the government money.
"It's being under-utilized," said Terri Bouffiou, communications manager for the U.S. Postal Service's Long Beach division. Mary Cornelious, superintendent of window services at the new Trade Center Station, added: "I thought we'd be a little busier by now. Personally, I don't like idle time."
Bouffiou said officials decided to build the new post office at the World Trade Center on Ocean Boulevard in part to attract customers from the surrounding high-rise buildings and siphon off some of the business from the nearby downtown branch on Long Beach Boulevard. In recent years that office--which has served area customers since 1933--has been so crowded, she said, that postal officials established a system under which customers take numbers and wait as long as 30 minutes to be served.
So far, however, the plan hasn't worked. Although the old branch continues to attract an average of 1,400 customers a day, postal officials say, the new one serves only 50 to 60. And while every other postal facility in the city has a waiting list for post office boxes, she said, only 130 of the 2,000 boxes at the new office have been rented since it opened on Aug. 23.
Business has picked up at the new station in recent weeks because of the Christmas mailing, but it still falls far short of capacity, Cornelious said. "People just don't know that we're here," she said. "It's hard to get them to change old habits."
She pointed out that the post office cannot be seen from the street and that the World Trade Center's management prohibits signs outside to call attention to the new branch. She added that not everyone is aware of the parking available beneath the building.
"At first, we started selling each other stamps just to get some money coming in," she quipped. Neither Cornelious nor Bouffiou will reveal how much money the new facility is losing, except to say that the rent far exceeds the revenues the office has generated through the sale of stamps and other services. While post offices are not for-profit institutions, Bouffiou said, postal officials generally prefer that they at least break even.
But Bouffiou says she hasn't given up on the new site. "I think it's a good location," she said. "This is part of the downtown retail area."
Cornelious is convinced that business will pick up once the World Trade Center, which opened last year, is fully occupied and other office high-rises planned in the area become realities. "The numbers are slowly increasing," she said. "In the long run we will succeed."
Not all of the facility's current regulars are particularly eager for that to happen.
"We'd like to keep it a secret," said Maria Herbert, an administrative secretary in the building. "Usually I just walk right up to the window."
Said Jack Wilson, another regular: "This is the lull before the storm. Most of the neighborhood doesn't know that it's here yet, but good things don't last forever."