Weekly reading: 11,000 newspapers, 6,000 magazines

The post office in this northern potato-farming town has never seen anything quite like it. Every weekday morning a building on the edge of town opens an overhead door and takes a delivery of mail -- between 20 and 35 sacks of it.

Mail order forms? Advertising fliers? No, just newspapers and magazines. Each year the mail brings $500,000 worth of periodicals from the United StateS, Canada, and Latin America to this isolated corner of New England. Nine thousand weekly papers, 6,000 magazines, 1,811 daily papers, and 639 Sunday papers all pour into the newest branch of Burrelle's Press Clipping Service.

"The only place that subscribes to more periodicals than Burrelle's is the Library of Congress," says John Maple, manager of the year-old Presque Isle office.

The oldest clipping service in America -- and the largest in the world -- keeps an eye on the press for its clients. Most of its 4,000 customers are corporations and public relations firms. For $115 a month, plus 60 cents per clip, Burrelle's readers will scan thousands of publications and mail out clippings on any topic the client desires. Often, the key word is simply the corporation's own name. Sometimes, however, companies want more: American Telephone & Telegraph, for example, gets every article containing the word "telephone."

Why do this sort of work in rural Maine?

"It's the quality of the work force," Mr. Maple says. Before Burrelle's opened its third office here in June 1980 (the others are in Livingston, N.J., and Provo, Utah), the managers conducted reading tests. The results: They felt Maine had a better-educated work force than the Carolinas, which was earlier a prime site because of its central location.

Formal education, however, is not a requirement among the 153 employees here -- although many are college graduates and some have master's degress. "Basically what we look for are people who like to read," says Maple, himself a published poet with a degree in creative writing. He thinks the quality of the local schools, and the isolation of the long winter, may help make Mainers into good readers.

Whatever the reason, the results are evident. The Presque Isle office already has the highest production rate of any of the company's three offices -- and the best attendance record.

Each of the 78 skilled readers here specializes in a state, city, or area east of the Mississippi. And, judging from the mood in the library-quiet reading room, they enjoy their task of reviewing 7,000 publications a week. "The time just goes Whoosh,"m says bearded, burly Ron Cheney. A retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, he "reads" North Carolina, putting in his eight hours between 6 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. and then going home to work his farm.

A specialist in Hartford, Conn., Sandy Gagnon, adds that "it's an excellent job for a mother." She finds she knows more about Hartford than her visitors from Connecticut -- although, she quips, "Nobody in Presque Isle wants to know what I read about."

But Presque Isle still benefits. Burrelle's is one of the few steady, noncyclical employers in this agricultural region. Paying good wages by local standards (readers get up to $5.30 an hour), it can attract better-qualified people here than in New Jersey. There, it must now compete with high-technology employers. Here, as it expands toward about 300 employees, it has four applicants for every job.

Founded in 1888, the business is still conducted essentially as it was 93 years ago. But changes are coming. "We are expanding into radio and television ," says Art Wayne Jr. of the firm's New Jersey office. Customers can already get videotape clips of television news shows or transcripts of radio programs. Other developments, still secret, are in the works.

But the product will remain the same: thousands of clips a day, joining the flow of potatoes and lumber southward from Aroostook County. The clips, however , go by express mail -- a service which, until Burrelle's arrived, the Presque Isle post office also had not yet seen.

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