Billions of dollars in debt and saddled with claims of irrelevancy, the U.S. Postal Service has never struggled more to fulfill its mandate "to bind the nation together."

The rise of online communication as an alternative to traditional mail has helped push the Postal Service to the brink of insolvency, forcing it to close branches across the Bay Area.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans rely on it for day-to-day needs.

The institution enshrined in the Constitution is considering cuts that would once have been unthinkable, such as eliminating Saturday service and slowing delivery of first-class letters.

Although many deride "snail mail," the Postal Service plays a vital role for Americans on the wrong side of the digital divide who lack access to email and online billing, and who rely on post offices for secure delivery of money and medicine.

For the millions who use post office boxes and receive hand-delivered mail, closing these neighborhood fixtures can feel like government abandonment.

The Postal Service maintains that plummeting mail volume and station visits force it to sell its products online and at grocery and office supply stores.

"The Post Office is no longer about a place you visit, but more about what you can do anywhere," spokesman Augustine Ruiz said.

Essential resource

Jessie Johnson, 65, is among the many hoping that local post offices stay open.

He stopped at Oakland's bustling Eastmont station recently to buy money orders, mail letters and pick up his 89-year-old mother's insulin.

"My generation grew up with the post office; I depend on it," he said. "We don't have a computer at home, and if we did I probably wouldn't know how to use it.

"If they close this down, maybe I'll have to learn," Johnson said, drawing a chuckle from his mother.

The Postal Service said last year that it would close the branch, but it gave the facility a reprieve earlier this month.

Less than one-third of seniors and just 35 percent of families whose income is $20,000 or less have Internet access at home, the Pew Center for Internet and the American Life reported in 2009.

Claude Battaglia, who works with low-income clients at Antioch's Rivertown Resource Center, rattled off a list of those who would suffer from post office cutbacks: disabled people who have trouble getting around; victims of domestic abuse who keep post office boxes for separate bank transactions and court documents; low-income residents and seniors who communicate with letters.

"Many of the people that come through here live on a fixed income of $830 a month," said Battaglia of Independent Living Resources. "They can't afford to check their email or go online."

For some, the post office is a place to rent an address.

"General delivery," once a way for sailors and tourists to pick up letters, has become an address of last resort for the homeless.

"It's very important because it's the only way I can get my mail," said Isis Rose, who walks with a cane and describes herself as "residentially challenged."

She dropped by Richmond's downtown post office recently to pick up financial and legal documents waiting for her behind the counter.

In crime-prone neighborhoods, longtime residents keep post office boxes because they fear thefts from their home mailboxes.

Rich Young's family has used a post office box since the 1960s, when his sister's driver's license was taken from the family mailbox.

"I can't tell you how many friends have had their mail taken," Young said. "This is the only way to protect your mail."

Changing times

Required to serve everyone and also be self-supporting, the Postal Service ran a $9 billion deficit last year. It could default Nov. 18 if it doesn't make a $5.5 billion payment for retiree health benefits.

Closing branches to save money will affect Walnut Creek, Moraga, Berkeley, Richmond, San Francisco and San Jose. The service also is cutting staff and ripping out sidewalk mailboxes where they are underused.

The flag still waves in front of downtown Walnut Creek's Station A, but the building is empty and a For Lease sign hangs over the window.

The prospect of next month's closure infuriates Mark Roseman, who lives two blocks away and will lose his post office box there.

Some say the sprawling service, which operates nearly three times as many U.S. outlets as Starbucks and runs the largest civilian vehicle fleet on Earth, is nearing institutional obsolescence.

"The Internet, phones, electronic communication bind the nation together. (Postal service) has to be scaled back." said Rick Geddes, professor of policy analysis at Cornell University.

He would like the government to subsidize a few vital social services, such as mailed prescription drugs, and let the rest of the institution die a natural death.

"It's silly to say that the nation is bound together by catalogs and credit card ads," he said, noting that the post office now functions primarily as a delivery system for advertising.

Opposing the cutbacks has seen limited success.

When the Postal Service announced its intention to close Richmond's Mira Vista branch last year, residents fought back with letters to Washington. The office won a reprieve, but a station in a more hardscrabble neighborhood nearby had to close.

The Postal Service says that although it is shrinking to survive in an email age, it is also expanding services on its websites and teaming with retailers such as Office Depot and Costco.

Technological advances "have caused the Postal Service to reinvent itself time and time again," Ruiz said. "We don't stop delivering the mail as long as there is mail and an address to deliver it to."

In the end, the strongest argument for post offices may be an emotional one.

Steve Hutkins, a literature professor whose most popular course at New York University is "A Sense of Place," thinks that post offices are essential to maintaining community integrity.

"There's something deeper going on," he said. "The post office represents the federal government in every single community.

"The post office clerk is always there. Him and the librarian."

Contact Hannah Dreier at 510-262-2787 or hdreier@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/hannahdreier. Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164 or pburgarino@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him Twitter.com/paulburgarino.

No Longer Delivering
Several Bay Area post office branches have recently been shuttered, while others on the closure list have been spared.
Set for closure
Daly City: Colma
San Jose: Colonnade
South San Francisco: Lindon Station
Closed since 2009
Berkeley: Park Station
Moraga: Country Club
Oakland: Kaiser Center, Station B
Richmond: Richmond Station A
San Jose: Station D
Saratoga: Village
Walnut Creek: Walnut Creek Station A
Removed from the closure list
Berkeley: Landscape; Park Station; South Berkeley
Concord: Casa Correo; Todos Santos
Fremont: Mission San Jose; Niles
Hayward: Bradford; Mount Eden
Oakland: Eastmont; Byron Mumford; Dimond; Kaiser Center; Mills College; Oakland Station B; Oakland Station E
Palo Alto: Palo Alto East; Veterans Affairs
Richmond: Mira Vista; Point Richmond; San Pablo
San Jose: Oakridge Mall
Vallejo: American Canyon
Fewer blue mailboxes
The Postal Service has taken out 56 blue postal collection boxes in the Bay-Valley District this year, which includes both the East and South Bay.
It plans to remove 47 more, leaving the district with 2,368.
Source: U.S. Postal Service