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They see everything — and everybody — at Jet Mail

Photograph of Jet Mail owner Ed Tinsley by Kathi O'Leary

By Donna Gillespie

THERE’S A PLACE in the neighborhood where you can hear a ripping yarn, linger for the latest news and rub shoulders with other locals such as maestro Michael Tilson Thomas, director Wayne Wang and a Getty or two — all while shipping holiday gifts to the relatives back home.

In small towns across the country, that place might be the local post office. In the Fillmore, it’s Jet Mail, at 2130 Fillmore Street.

Owner Ed Tinsley and manager Kevin Wolohan probably hear as many personal stories as most bartenders or barbers.

“There’s an atmosphere of conviviality,” Tinsley says of a typical day at Jet Mail. “People open up. The mailing’s often an afterthought.”

Jet Mail is also home to more than 300 mailboxes, many used by people as business addresses. “Mailboxes are really the anchor of the store,” Wolohan says. “People need a safe place to receive packages or mail. There’s something very personal about it.”

It sometimes seems the Jet Mail staff knows everyone on the street. Walk a block up Fillmore alongside Wolohan and he’ll wave to at least five people.

“People tell me it’s part of the matrix of their lives,” says Tinsley, who strives to stay abreast of changes in people’s lives so he can anticipate the services they’ll need. “It’s like an old relationship,” he says. “They don’t have to say what they want.”

And the relationship doesn’t always end when a customer moves away.

“A lot of people who’ve moved out of the neighborhood still come to us, even if they’ve moved out of San Francisco,” says Wolohan. “We’re good at making people feel secure. We’ve had the same people working here for years,” including Tinsley, Wolohan and Ashley Ho, all of whom have been with the store since the early ’90s.

They seem to love what they do, and they do it — mostly — without computers.

“We’re not high-tech,” says Wolohan. “We’re horse-and-buggy. We will custom-make a box. We have a computer only for labels and email. Everything else we do by hand.”

Wolohan believes this low-tech philosophy offers advantages for customers. “With a computer you can charge a lot more. It calculates how much Styrofoam — everything,” he says. “We don’t need fancy machinery. We keep it simple.”

Jet Mail opened in 1990 on a Friday the 13th. “My consultant begged me not to open then,” Tinsley says. “But I’m not superstitious.” And it does seem that Jet Mail’s luck has mostly been good. Getting a poignant glimpse of turning points in people’s lives is almost an everyday occurrence.

“We see the noblest behavior and the basest,” Tinsley says.

Hardly a week goes by that Tinsley doesn’t witness a show of uncommon care and concern. “People will do things as a sacrifice,” Tinsley says. “It happens with surprising frequency — with AIDs victims, or suicides — people, out of pure goodness, will mail all their things home. We also get lots of care packages for people who have an injury and are immobile. And we’ll get people who are dying and want to disperse their worldly goods.”

Not everyone with a package to ship is in a benevolent frame of mind.

“We get couples after a divorce or breakup,” Tinsley says. “One will be sending the other the last of their stuff. ‘Send it the cheapest way,’ they’ll say. ‘No tracking, no insurance.’ ”

Then there are the encounters that continue to haunt, even after the passage of years.

“Once, two MDs came in,” Tinsley recounts. “They were from Shanghai. They were nervous, sweating — they said they’d just missed their connecting flight to Stockholm. They told me they wanted to mail ‘human tissue’ — it was packaged in dry ice, sealed and ready to go. It had to be in Stockholm the next day. I told them it would take two days, and there were no guarantees. It cost them $1,200. I warned them, ‘I think Swedish customs will ask for more info.’

“‘No, it’s OK,’ I was told.

“Four or five days later, they called. ‘The patient died,’ they said. ‘We’re suing you.’ ” That was when they told Tinsley the box contained a human heart.

“They wanted $2,000 for the heart. I laughed and threatened them with U.S. Customs, Homeland Security and immigration.” Tinsley never heard from the pair again.

But those aren’t the oddest customers he’s ever encountered.

“A man came into the store,” Tinsley says. “His hair was piled up three feet high on his head. It looked like a ziggurat. He had lots of things in his hair — twigs, leaves, earrings, credit cards, contraceptives. Things were moving in there. A woman standing next to him couldn’t talk; she was frozen with her mouth open.”

He asked questions and was loud and demanding.

“Finally he got around to what really concerned him,” Tinsley says. “He asked me, ‘Do you see any birds in my hair?’ He was worried about the birds. Were they OK?”

Tinsley remains mostly unfazed by such encounters.

“You have to treat people with dignity,” he says. “They’re human beings.”

Jet Mail has not been immune from the occasional, inevitable theft. Neither Tinsley nor Wolohan takes it lying down. They always give spirited chase.

Once, two women working as a team came into the store. Wolohan was completing a transaction with the taller of the two. Twice she dropped her change, attempting to create a distraction. Quarters rolled behind the counter. Simultaneously, a smaller woman who had been lingering near the greeting cards shot over to the register. “She was incredibly fast,” recalls Wolohan. “She reached all the way around and took all the twenties. I yelled to Ed, who was in the back, and told him we’d been robbed and I was going to chase the woman.”

Wolohan pursued the woman to the corner of Fillmore and California, shouting at her all the while. When he planted himself in front of her and wouldn’t let her pass, she finally relented. “She pulled all the money out of her top,” says Wolohan. “She even gave me an extra twenty.”

It turned out to be no bonus, however — the extra twenty was counterfeit.

Jet Mail has been affected by the downturn in the economy, but perhaps less than some. People continue to send packages, and someone always needs the services of a notary, which both Tinsley and Wolohan provide.

Through the holiday season, Jet Mail is offering a concierge service to ease the difficulty of parking. Just call ahead, pull up in front of the store and they’ll come out and get your packages. If you have a large number of boxes to be shipped, they can arrange a pickup.

Jet Mail is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. — better hours than the post office.