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Stamps by phone

TO avoid crowds in stores, or box-office queues, people often order by phone nowadays, and reckon that a service charge is money well spent for the hassle it saves. Now we can avoid the post-office line, too, with a new stamps-by-phone service. Use your Visa or MasterCard, and the United States Postal Service will take your order ``anytime of the day or night, every day of the year, holidays included,'' an ad says. Delivery is promised within five days.

The toll-free number is 1-800-STAMP-24, though we haven't personally tried it. It sounds too good to be true, or at least not like the postal service we know, which has trouble staying open Saturday afternoon, let alone Christmas morning.

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There is a service charge and an $11 minimum-order requirement. These are to be expected. Small print, however, cautions that ``requests for specific issues cannot be filled.'' This is a disappointment. At least when we stand in line, we usually get some choice in the little artworks we invest in, some opportunity to match stamp with addressee - a Girl Scout commemorative on a letter to Mom, for instance, as we remember her years as a troop leader; for the mortgage payment or the telephone bill, a neutral flag stamp.

Beyond these aesthetic concerns, we wonder about getting the stamps back through the mail. We recall reading of a woman who tried to avoid post-office hassle by ordering stamps by mail. After a few days, she received a slip indicating attempted delivery of a registered letter. And so, in eager anticipation of something truly important, she managed to find a few minutes in her busy day to get to the local post office she had been trying to avoid.

But what did the registered letter turn out to contain? Her stamps-by-mail.

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