Once a municipal landmark found in even the smallest communities, the neighborhood post office is slowly going the way of the handwritten letter. So much so that the U.S. Postal Service is considering closing nearly 1,000 of its smaller branches nationwide, with dozens of them in California.
But even as the Postal Service weighs public reaction, small communities worry that they'll lose a needed service. And in places like San Juan Capistrano, officials are fighting to save their post offices.
When the agency last month released the names of the offices that could be closed, the south Orange County town was astounded that its single branch was on the list, which also includes six offices in San Diego, five in Santa Ana, four each in Newport Beach and Long Beach and dozens more across the state.
"This is a gathering place for people and has been for years," said Pam Lytle, a real estate agent, as she mailed a package and bought stamps at the post office, which is next to a dental office and down the street from City Hall. "Closing it would just be a big no-no."
Closing the facility would force residents to trek to a larger one 10 miles away in Mission Viejo. And it wouldn't be much consolation that that office, founded before the neighboring suburb had incorporated, still bears the name San Juan.
City leaders are united in opposition to the possible shuttering of the sole post office in the community of 36,000.
"We pride ourselves on a small-village feel and character, and we encourage our community to shop and take care of business locally," Mayor Mark Nielsen said outside the post office as customers streamed in and out. "It certainly would create a large void and make it tremendously inconvenient for a number of our citizens."
With officials describing its financial position as grave, the Postal Service is under pressure to cut expenses. Mail volume has plummeted not only because of the recession, but because most messages these days are e-mailed and more postal transactions are conducted online -- a trend the agency calls "ongoing electronic diversion."
The agency earlier this month projected a net loss of $7 billion by the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30. Officials said that the list is preliminary and that no offices will be closed without studies and public meetings.
"It's not a hit list, and there are no decisions made yet," said Richard Maher, a Postal Service spokesman. "We're calling it a consolidation."
But one thing is for sure: Soon to be gone are the days when nearly everyone has to -- or will even be able to -- walk into his local post office and have a clerk send a parcel.
"That's not the case anymore," Maher said. "You don't have to go to the neighborhood post office to get stamps or even mail a package."
The potential cuts are of particular concern to the elderly and isolated, who may be unaccustomed to corresponding online or uncomfortable driving far to mail a package.
"This is the one they depend on," said Natalie Fuller, a patron at the San Juan post office. The retired court clerk made a date with her San Juan Capistrano senior citizens group to discuss how the post office's closing could affect their quality of life. "It would spoil it terribly: It's the only one we have in the actual city."
In Newport Beach, city officials have been hearing complaints about possible postal closings, particularly from tiny Balboa Island, a quaint neighborhood of just a few thousand people connected to the mainland by narrow bridges and a ferry. There, the post office is as much a spot for socializing as a place to do business.
"Some of our residents on the island are elderly and they walk to that post office," said Tara Finnigan, a city spokeswoman. "It's been part of the fabric of that island for years."
On the practical side, the consolidation is bound to root out some costly duplication.
In the Belmont Shore neighborhood in Long Beach, for instance, the likely scenario, Maher said, would be to merge a manned and an unmanned postal station that sit across the street from each other.