Santa's special mail room delivers books all year long

Friday, December 19, 2008

KNOXVILLE -- It's not Santa's workshop, but for pre-school children who are enrolled in the Imagination Library, the business tucked away near the biggest Post Office here might as well be Santa's mail room and the loading dock for a year-round delivery of one special kind of gift.

Direct Mail Services on Westbrook Lane in a small business park receives truck loads of books from publishers of some of the most famous books in the country. "The Little Engine That Could" is the first book sent to children enrolled in the Imagination Library program that's jointly funded by the Governor's Books From Birth Foundation and local groups in each Tennessee county that raise money to match the foundation's funding.

Country music star Dolly Parton and Gov. Phil Bredesen endorse this program that enrolls any and all children who come -- presumably with an adult -- and sign up for the free books.

"I think it's important that it doesn't just go to poor kids," says Ann Staup, one of the owners of Direct Mail Services who knows children talk amongst themselves and that it's important for them to have something in common.

Reading is one of those things and the books can be a vehicle for that, sort of like the little engine that takes kids to one another.

"I've always been an avid reader," Staup said during a visit at her Direct Mail Services office earlier this year. "My dad read to me."

Parents reading to children is at the heart of the idea behind the Imagination Library.

"A panel of PhDs selects the books a year ahead of time and we've been at their meetings," Staup said. "There's nothing like reading children's books for eight hours.

"They're looking for color and pictures and picking the content that's the best for the kids," she said. "They really look at the message."

And just like the message (I think I can) in the program's first book, "The Little Engine That Could," the contract for Direct Mail Services was based on that simple belief in yourself.

"Our manager asked if we could help with a new program with 800 pieces sent to children," says Patty McGaha, right hand man and gal Friday to Staup.

"It wasn't what we did, but..."

She thought they could, and so did Staup.

"As a typical business owner," Staup said, recalling her answer during a meeting: "'No problem.' But then out of the meeting ... 'How do we do it?'"

More space, more machines, more employees and more business were the answers and over time, it's grow to receiving, addressing, wrapping, labeling and shipping millions of books each year.

Direct Mail Services is, of course computerized, but it's also still a close knit group of co-workers who serve other people and businesses, too.

"We help our clients with the strategy of being 'Your direct mail company,' consulting with them on the front end with design services," Staup said, offering to serve "from concept to mailed product."

Inside, it's not glamorous, but there are glamorous, famous and important clients. Some have power. Some have bangles and bows, and some have parents who pay attention to them before anybody else.

And one may even wear a red suit with white fur a the cuffs, collar and button line.