For Litle Rent, Your Mail Can Arrive at First-Class Address

Times Staff Writer

Dozens of struggling actors, writers and businessmen come to Dorothy Parks' tiny Studio City office every day. Many of them dream of having an office on Ventura Boulevard for the status it implies but can't afford one.

So they rent hers.

Parks manages The Postal Box, one of a growing number of Valley businesses that rent mail boxes to individuals who, for a variety of reasons, do not want letters and packages delivered to their homes or offices. Most of the stores are on Ventura Boulevard.

The Postal Box's address--billed as "prestigious" in the Yellow Pages--is shared by 140 customers who rent the mail boxes that line its interior walls. Unlike the U.S. Postal Service, which requires its lock-box customers to use a post office box number, most of the private firms allow their clients to use the street address of the store, plus a suite, space or apartment number.

The U.S. Postal Inspector's office estimates there are 69 mail-drop businesses in the San Fernando Valley. Most of the storefront operations have sprung up in the last four years in Studio City, Sherman Oaks, Encino and Tarzana.

"Many of our customers are operating small businesses out of their homes or elsewhere and want the Ventura Boulevard address," said Jerry Goulet, owner of Postal Boxes Etc. in Tarzana, which has grown to include 350 mail customers in three years.

"The address means a lot. It seems that everyone in the world knows Ventura Boulevard.".

But Herb Goffstein, western regional franchise director for Mail Boxes Etc. USA, which has stores in Encino, Tarzana, Sherman Oaks, Toluca Lake and Canoga Park, had a different perspective.

"We live in a secretive society," he said. "People don't want others to know where they live and what they do."

The burgeoning number of private lock-box firms points to a shortage of the less-expensive boxes offered at public post offices. A Postal Service spokesman said there is a three-month waiting list for post office boxes throughout the Valley.

Rental rates vary among the businesses, but most start at about $10 a month for a standard 3 1/2- by 5-inch box, compared to $11 for six months at the post office.

In addition to collecting mail, many of the firms offer telephone answering services for an additional fee and will ship as well as receive packages. Some give customers keys to the lobby of the building, enabling them to collect their mail after business hours.

Most store owners agree that the postal box business is a cheap entrepreneurial venture, costing only $15,000 to $20,000 to start.

Franchise operations, however, are more expensive because the parent company sets up the store and trains the franchisee. Mail Boxes Etc., which started four years ago and now has 180 stores throughout the country, charges about $50,000 for a franchise.

Goffstein said he and partner Gary Williams hope to open 40 to 50 new stores in the Valley in the next five years, each of which will start with about 250 mail boxes.

'Very Little Overhead'

One of the largest postal box businesses in the Valley is Valley Mail and Telephone Service in Studio City, which, in four years, has grown to include 700 mail clients and 150 answering service customers, according to owner Rita Lazar.

"There's very little overhead," Lazar said. "It cost us about $19,000 to start. We opened with no customers at all--just boxes and prayers. If we used to rent 50 to 60 boxes a month, we were doing well."

Some customers who are using the business address to impress others have been embarrassed when prospective employers or acquaintances have showed up at the storefront's door expecting to find them at home or work, store owners say.

"People come here looking for one of our customers a couple of times a week," Parks said. "They get pretty perturbed with us because we can't give out information on where the person lives or works. All we can do is take a message."

Hears Life Stories

As an offshoot of her job, Parks listens to the life stories of clients who come to her store each day, hoping to find an acceptance letter or check in their mail box.

"There's one young man trying to break into acting," said Parks, who has worked at The Postal Box since it opened in 1980. "It's been rough, but things are finally beginning to break for him.

"There's also a woman who's a television writer, and she's really been struggling. She was having such a problem, but things are happening for her, too. I said to her the other day, 'Honey, it's so good to see a smile on your face.'

"It's fun to watch their careers grow."

And although most of the customers are taking their first steps up a career ladder, some businesses boast of celebrity clients.

Well-Known Clients

Although she would not divulge the names of any current customers, Lazar said former mail clients have included actresses Nancy Walker and Marion Ross and singer Vikki Carr.

"We don't have that many celebrities, but the ones we do have here are big, big names," said Lazar's husband, Emil Rollnick. "They don't collect the mail themselves--they send a maid."

Divorcing couples often use the boxes to conceal mail and paychecks from estranged spouses, store owners said, while some married individuals carry on affairs by mail.

"We have men with mistresses and women with lovers who receive mail here," said J. Allan Weber Jr., vice president of American Vault Inc. of Studio City. The firm, which opened in late 1983, has 170 mail and 500 safe deposit box customers.

Need Permanent Address

Weber said some customers move around frequently and need to show a permanent address for credit purposes. Others have just located in the area and have not found a place to live.

"They may be living with a friend, in a trailer or in their car," he said.

Some businesses also encounter unsavory individuals.

U.S. Postal Inspector Bill Watson said many fraudulent businesses work out of private postal boxes, making it difficult for investigators to track down the operators. He estimated there are about 200 "boiler room" businesses in Los Angeles that set up phone banks in storefronts and telephone hundreds of individuals, offering them sweet deals that really are too good to be true.

For example, a caller may offer someone a diamond ring in exchange for sending $2 to a postal box number. The customer either receives a worthless hunk of glass or nothing at all, Watson said.

"It should be pretty obvious that you can't get a diamond ring for $2," Watson said. "But there are people who will send the money and say, 'Well, I can't go wrong for $2."'

Scrutiny of Customers

Watson said he is preparing a letter to private postal box businesses, asking owners to scrutinize their customers more closely and maintain photo identification of customers to help postal inspectors locate scam operators.

"It would really help us prosecute these people," Watson said. "They operate almost exclusively from postal boxes."

Parks said one of her customers two years ago turned out to be the "jogging robber," who watched where joggers would go and ransacked their homes while they were out.

"The police came in here looking for him and told me who he was," Parks said. "I made the mistake of putting a notation on his box to remind me to call the police when he came in, but he saw it and took off."

Police caught up with the man shortly after, however, and Parks said she soon began forwarding his mail to a jail cell.

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