Once a month Charles Temes drives from Baltimore to Manhattan. Now in his late 80s, he has been making the 400-mile round trip for the past 57 years. He spends two nights at a local YMCA and usually returns home with his car full of lamps, chandeliers, and assorted bric-a-brac, all of which he buys at the New York City post office auction of merchandise from undeliverable parcels.
If a lost package in the postal system is untraceable, it ends up on the auction block, where bidders ranging from business people to housewives snap up the contents. As word spreads - and the economy worsens - such auctions are attracting more and more people.
Mr. Temes concentrates on lighting fixtures, but says he'll buy ''anything that's cheap enough'' because he can always resell it to a clientele of businesses and private individuals he has built up over the years.
He thinks it's worth the long trip to New York, because the post office there has the best auctions around. But the postal auctions in Atlanta; Boston; Chicago; Ft. Worth, Texas; Los Angeles; Philadelphia; St. Paul, Minn.; and San Francisco all have their followers, too.
Parcels are auctioned for several reasons: They become separated from their wrappings; the address is indecipherable and no return address is enclosed (that's why the post office encourages people to put a copy of their return address inside all packages); they are damaged in handling and a claim has already been paid; or they are unclaimed or refused.
Bertha Merriman, New York superintendent of claims, inquiries, and undeliverable mail, is amazed at the things that turn up in the mail. ''We've seen everything,'' she says, recalling a full suit of armor that was once auctioned. Her department has also received a large collapsible boat, many sets of dentures and bridgework (which dentists pick up at bargain prices at the auctions), and even car tires. ''Anything that is mailable, we get,'' she adds.
Manhattan's main post office, on Eighth Avenue between 32nd and 33rd Street, receives an especially large amount of undeliverable mail, Mrs. Merriman says, because it is the central headquarters for the entire city, upstate New York, Long Island, and northern New Jersey, as well as for a great deal of military mail.
Last year the New York post office took in a total of $400,000 from its dozen auctions, which went to help defray the costs of handling and processing claims on damaged parcels.
Barbara Beddoe, the owner of Hovels and Castles, an antiques store in Greenwich Village, is another regular who attends the monthly auctions. She comes looking for interesting collectibles for her customers.
''It's not too often you can find a real bargain anymore because they know what they're doing,'' she says, explaining that postal authorities set a minimum bid for each item. And competition has escalated as auction attendance has increased.
''I've seen people become so competitive that they overbid,'' Miss Beddoe says. ''Once I saw a camera that sells in the stores for $100 new go for $115 here.''
Miss Beddoe often bids on large bins of books, never knowing what lies below the top layer. One such purchase netted her 40 copies of ''Wilt the Stilt,'' a book about basketball star Wilt Chamberlain. Most of them are still stored in her brother-in-law's basement. But another time she bought a bin of 25 cookbooks for a few dollars and found among them an old Fannie Farmer edition that alone was worth $15.
Marilyn Hoch, another steady customer, bids on packages of new cosmetics (shipments of which often get lost en route to small drugstores or private distributors) and then sells them at flea markets on Long Island. ''I buy so much that sometimes there are more cosmetics than furniture in my house,'' she says.
She and her daughter used to sift through her purchases after every auction and keep half the items. Now they try to be more selective.
On the viewing day before a recent auction, when merchandise was on display for public inspection, Mrs. Hoch looked around the basement room of the post office and caught sight of several other cosmetic dealers. ''Now I know the bidding will be competitive,'' she said.
Not everyone who attends is in business. One retired man from the Bronx says he occasionally goes to the auctions to pick up toys for his grandchildren and presents for friends and relatives. ''The buyers who sell to stores aren't interested in small quantities,'' he says, ''but I am.''
He tells about the time he bought a sewing machine for his wife for $55. He only had to replace a small part for it and buy an instruction book, ''and it worked.'' But, he cautions, ''you never know with mechanical items, it's always a risk. But that's part of the game.''
At last month's auction, the room in the main branch of the New York post office was packed with potential buyers. Ayanna Kofi, the auctioneer, got the proceedings off to a swift start and began to rattle off numbers as fast as people could raise their paddles. That auction raised $43,000.
Mrs. Kofi was picked for the job out of a pool of postal employees three years ago because of her good voice projection, and she quickly mastered the auctioneer's technique. She took the place of several men who previously ran the auctions, alternating as auctioneer after every hundred lots. Mrs. Kofi can go for several hours, calling off at least 250 lot numbers before she takes a break to rest and have a drink of water.
Among the items that came under her gavel last month were 10,000 bingo cards in assorted colors, which brought $10; a set of Wedgwood bone china, $50; 75 hockey pucks, $75; dozens of pairs of brand-new men's underwear, $90; and 15 Franklin Mint medals, $270.
One of the attractions for many auctiongoers is that they never know what's going to be up for sale, or how much people will be willing to pay. Dr. William Emerson, a New York City college professor, sums it up: 'It's the joy of discovery. You really can't go wrong because it's such fun.''