Lori Weinstein and 2-year-old Joshua pass by the Chevy Chase post office, which is on the list of possible closures. (Amanda Voisard/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The U.S. Postal Service is targeting 3,700 post offices across the country that could be closed, the largest downsizing in the history of the money-losing agency.

The unprofitable stations, branches and main offices that could be shuttered starting in January account for about 11 percent of the Postal Service’s retail operations. In the Washington area, 32 post offices could be jettisoned, from those servicing Congress in the U.S. Capitol to ones in Silver Spring and downtown Leesburg.

Another 124 elsewhere in Maryland and Virginia are on the list, with the rest are scattered across 47 other states. The local post office with an American flag flying overhead has helped define communities — rural, suburban and urban — in many of these areas for more than two centuries.

The Postal Service hopes the contraction will save $200 million a year. That does not come close to recouping the $8 billion the agency is expected to lose for the second year running as it fights plummeting mail volume. But postal officials said they intend to review half of their network of 32,000 post offices for closure in the next decade as they try to slash labor costs.

“We’ve made heroic efforts to take costs out of the organization while continuing to provide services,” Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe said at a news conference, comparing his agency’s financial struggles to the federal government’s effort to stay within its cap on borrowing.

“We have employees waiting for customers to come into their lobbies, and they have less than two hours they’re working,” he said.

A new “Village Post Office”

About 2,500 of the 3,654 sites targeted for possible closure will be replaced by a clerk in a local store, gas station, library or town hall in a new business model the Postal Service describes as a “Village Post Office.”

In January, the Postal Service said it would review 2,000 post offices for closure, but the plan met opposition from lawmakers and in affected communities. About 280 of those post offices have closed, and officials said another 700 are likely to.

Officials said the reduction announced Tuesday could move forward quickly under new rules that give the Postal Service greater authority to act.

Each post office will be evaluated for how much money it brings in, how many hours its employees work and how close it is to other post offices. More than 3,000 of the post offices identified bring in less than $27,500 in annual revenue, figures from the Postal Service show. Yet many of them cost more than $100,000 to operate.

Donahoe said the closures would affect the jobs of 4,500 postmasters, station managers, supervisors and clerks. Some would be able to apply for other positions within the Postal Service, but others would lose their jobs.

The Postal Service now sells stamps in thousands of CVS pharmacies, Wal-Marts and other retail stores; the “Village” model would expand those services.

Postal officials said they are soliciting small retailers to fold these Village Post Offices into their businesses in the next year, with its first contract under negotiation in a small town in Washington state.

Their services would be limited, however, to sales of stamps and flat-rate packages and mailbox rentals where there is a demand. The Postal Service says it is those basic services that are used by nearly 85 percent of customers. The “Village” sites would not dispense passports, money orders, certified receipts or priority envelopes and would not weigh odd-sized Christmas boxes.

“It’s a really nice option in terms of access and convenience,” Donahoe said of the new model, calling the added postal revenue a lifeline for struggling small businesses. “Many general stores are hanging on for dear life out there.”

The announcement quickly began to trigger a battle with local communities, postal unions and members of Congress, who despite pledges to overhaul the mail service have resisted closings.

Community opposition

At the Suitland post office on Tuesday, a steady stream of customers on line were angry to learn their post office is on the list.

“It’s unacceptable,” said Norman Thorpe, who runs a business out of his home. “I’ve been coming her about three times a week for 30 years. It’s busy all the time, so I don’t know why they’re closing.”

Chevy Chase residents lamented the potential loss of their community gathering place. “It’s part of the culture of the town,” said Stephanie Grill, who lives a half-mile away and checks her mailbox there two to three times a week.

The post office sits in a quaint stucco community center, surrounded by shady trees and houses. “It has a small-town kind of feel,” Grill said.

Although some candidates for closure are around the corner from other post offices — one in downtown Silver Spring is a short walk from the main branch — those in rural areas are different. In many towns, the post office is a focal point, and closing it would necessitate traveling long stretches to another site.

“While there are some areas where postal services could be consolidated . . . this simply is not an option in many rural and remote areas,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the top Republican on the committee that oversees the Postal Service, said in a statement. More than 30 post offices in her state are on the list, including one on a remote island that gets deliveries five days a week.

The only state spared is Delaware, with 70 post offices, the smallest number in the country. There are five bills pending in Congress to overhaul the Postal Service, and Donohoe has endorsed the one introduced by Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.)

Postal officials said the state’s exclusion from the list is not due to favoritism but to the state’s high population ratio to post offices: 12,000 people per post office, compared with one for every 2,000 people in North Dakota, where 76 of 324 post offices would close.

The new system will involve community meetings to look for alternatives, after which local groups will have 60 days to appeal closures to the Postal Regulatory Commission. But the Postal Service is not bound by the commission’s review.

A long line of cuts

The Postal Service has slashed billions of dollars in costs in recent years, reducing its workforce by 130,000 employees. The agency has maxed out a $15 billion line of credit with the federal government and is hamstrung by an annual $5.5 billion payment into a fund set aside for health benefits for retirees. Several bills pending in Congress would alleviate some of the financial problems, but an effort to switch to five- from six-day delivery has gone nowhere.

“Cutting service and closing post offices is not the answer to the [Postal Service’s] financial crisis,” said Sally Davidow, a spokeswoman for the American Postal Workers Union, which represents 220,000 employees and retirees. Instead, Congress must allow the Postal Service to tap into surpluses in its retiree benefits funds, she said.

Staff reporters Sarah Khan, Jillian Sowah and Larissa Roso contributed to this story.