Once the ferries landed here where the pilots and the crew lived and the town bustled with automobile traffic on its way to and from Ocean City several times each day. Then the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was built 10 miles north, the ferry era ended and Claiborne on the Eastern Shore faded into peaceful obscurity.

Its postmark lived on, a tangible symbol to the world of the town's continued existence. And more than a postmark, the general store and gas station, where the residents came for their mail, groceries and gossip, survived. It is the town's only remaining commercial establishment, but it is much more than that. It is the center of village life.

"We're the only anything," says Martha Hamlyn, who handles the mail and helps her husband, Jim Richardson, run the store. And U.S. Rep. Roy Dyson (D-Md.), a recent visitor, says, "If ever there was a case where a post office could preserve a sense of community, this is it."

Now the U.S. Postal Service is threatening, for the second time in six years, to shut down the facility that serves Claiborne's 85 households, many of them made up of widows and widowers who look forward to stopping by several times each day. The threatened closing would also mean the end of the general store that the fourth-class post office, through rent and wages, in effect subsidizes.

"This is Claiborne," said resident Carole Stewart of the combined store-post office. "Without this, what have you got?" And Duffey Clark, a second-time-around resident, avers, "This is the hub of the whole operation, how you keep in touch with what's going on, who's ill, who needs help . . . "

Besides tending mail and selling groceries, the proprietors of Claiborne's only store deliver to the homebound and worry about elderly regulars who fail to stop by. "My father lives alone," explained Doris Blazek, a partner in the prestigious Washington law firm of Covington & Burling, who grew up here. "I have a sense if he didn't show up at the store, Jim and Martha would be asking questions."

Thus, 97 residents, and 40 non-residents from as far away as Baltimore and Beaver Falls, Pa., have signed petitions opposing the closure,and Dyson, who represents the Eastern Shore, has interceded on the town's behalf. Even Shirley Smith, the postal clerk at nearby McDaniel, which postal officials say could absorb the Claiborne clientele, stopped by the other day to buy an ice cream cone and say, "We hope they stay open, too." But the fate of the Claiborne Supply Co., the official name of the general store cum post office, remains in doubt.

Named after the Virginian who established Maryland's first white settlement in 1631 on Kent Island, just north of here, the town was platted at the end of the Civil War on a grand scale it never achieved. Joseph B. Seth, a speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates and an investor in Chesapeake Bay steamships, planned to connect the Western Shore with Ocean City via ferry and rail. The combined operation got under way in 1890 and the ferries, later carrying cars and owned by the state, continued until the Bay Bridge opened in 1952.

"It was a grand time when the ferries were running; it was easier to get to Annapolis than to Easton, and more relaxing," recalled Helen Dawson, whose father and brother were both boat captains. "They were like Errol Flynn to me. They always looked so dashing in their uniforms. I sure wish my daughter had known these ferries and the men who were on them. It was a very romantic era."

At its peak, Claiborne boasted its own school, two restaurants, a bakery, a couple of general stores, a hotel, a boarding house and a "preventorium" where city children spent healthy summers away from turberculosis-ridden tenements. The surviving store was started in 1912 by Theodore T. Jones, whose son, T. Otis Jones, carried on the business until his death in 1979.

Over the years, T. Otis established a tradition of service above and beyond the call of duty. As Helen Dawson recalled, "When he delivered our groceries, Mr. Jones would put the ice cream and milk in the refrigerator if we weren't here. He and his wife always kept an eye out for the town."

The store still has the "liar's bench" T. Otis salvaged from a ferry that used to stop here. "We heard great tales from men sitting on that bench," said his widow, Esther Jones, who still lives across the street in a green-shuttered, white-frame home and regularly visits the old store. "We had an old man who sat there. He was almost like family. My husband used to pick him up in the morning and take him home at lunchtime. In fact, he almost died on that bench. His name was Mr. Joe Taylor."

T. Otis was the postmaster from 1944 on, and "Miss Esther" held the job after her husband's death until she retired last year. She passed the torch on to Martha Hamlyn who, with her husband, bought the store in May 1981.

Hamlyn, 31, isn't official yet. She's just the officer-in-charge of the post office, earning $4.82 an hour without health or other benefits until authorities decide whether to appoint her postmaster or shut down the facility that fills one corner of the store.

Although oldtimers will tell you it contained a wider variety of goods under T. Otis, the store still carries everything from crab nets to roach spray, along with essentials such as milk and bread and innovations that include homemade pizza and deli sandwiches like the "Hamlyn Hogie." Another new item is a T-shirt, especially designed by Rennie Johnson, an artist friend of the owners who lives here. It says, "CLAIBORNISM -- Waiting for the second coming of the ferry . . . ," and practially everyone in town has at least one.

The new owners are former residents of Baltimore and Annapolis, which they rejected as "too trendy." Richardson, 35, originally from the Pittsburgh area, is a watercolor and pen-and-ink artist who paints pictures of old commercial buildings such as the one he now owns. In fact, he painted three of the store for Esther Jones, who gave two to her sons and kept one for herself, which hangs by her stairway.

The store's interior retains its Norman Rockwell looks, with the original wall shelves and glass display cases and decals for Koester's Bread, although the product disappeared years ago. The owners carry a $500-a-month note held by Miss Esther, and although there is a slow, steady stream of customers, receipts at day's end barely cover expenses. Without Martha's hourly postal wage and the $100 monthly rent the government pays, the couple simply couldn't afford to keep the store or live here.

The financial pinch will become even tighter when the couple's first child arrives in February, a widely awaited community event that perhaps only the return of the ferries could rival. "How are you today, dear?" the elderly women ask Martha Hamlyn on any given day.

If the townsfolk worry about the proprietors, the concern is mutual. "These young people seem like they have a genuine interest," said Helen Dawson. The other day, Martha and Jim worried about the wife of a customer they hadn't seen who has been hospitalized. They breathed easier the next day when he appeared to get his mail and reported she was "doing better."

Their store also serves as a community bulletin board, with posters for the upcoming circus in St. Michael's, a church ham and oyster supper and Carole Stewart's offer of a $5 reward for the return of her two missing cats. There are also, of course, the FBI "wanted" posters assuring, Jim Richardson says, that none of the fiendish faces pictured will ever find a safe place to hide in Claiborne -- so long as the post office stays open.

The mail here, too, receives special handling that for the residents far outweighs any of the touted advantages of home delivery. On Thursday, for example, F. Hooper Bond looked at his mail and told Hamlyn, "I'm gonna leave this all with you and Molly his wife will pick it up later."

While the post office took in only $6.84 that day, Hamlyn received, sorted and handed to 56 customers 184 pieces of mail, forwarded seven more and sent out 68, one of which was left in the mail box outside with coins wrapped in aluminum foil for postage. She also read return addresses to a resident who wanted to check his mail by phone and then decided not to rush down to pick it up.

Revenue from the Claiborne post office to the government totaled $3,150.15 in fiscal year 1981 and is expected to climb by nearly $1,000 in the 12-month period ending Sept. 30. Set against such totals is the nearly $10,000 the Postal Service pays in rent and wages to keep the operation open. Although the bottom line is a chief concern to officials, they are also supposed to consider a closing's "effect on the community," according to regulations.

"It's under study," was the less than definitive word from Shirley MacDonald, the regional postal manager in Wilmington, Del., who said a decision will be forthcoming some time after the new year. "I don't want to get the town riled up."