The town is not much to look at. Except for the general store, a few farmhouses and an old garage hidden behind an admirable collection of rusting automobiles, this wink of a crossroads town in southern Virginia is an unwelcome break in a landscape of scrub pines.
But, oh, what a name this hamlet boasts. Valentines, Va. Sweet as a box of chocolates and fluid as a romantic rhyme, the sound of this town has endeared it to thousands of lovers who annually detour their valentines through the post office to pick up an appropriate postmark.
"I'm sure I'm the most popular postmaster on the East Coast on Valentine's Day," says William Wright, a normally modest man who is proud to be buried under an avalanche of hearts and flowers for two weeks each year. "The evidence proves it."
That evidence was stacked in bags and boxes behind the pinewood counter of Wright's general store this week. By Monday, Wright estimates he will have hand canceled 3,000 valentines with a heart shaped ink stamp he had custom made in Richmond.
"It's a lot of work," said Wright this week, stepping over two dogs curled at the feet of a farmer warming himself at Wright's wood stove. "But you don't mind taking extra work for people who appreciate it."
While Wright and his post office have a lock on the valentine postmark market east of the Mississippi, there are towns called Vanetine in Arizona, Nebraska and Texas. And the postmasters in Lovng, N.M.; Loveland, Tex., and Loveville, Md., probably get their own share of redirected valentines each year.
But nowhere, says the 50-year-old postmaster, store owner and local historian, will a valentine get more loving care than in the post office he has mastered since 1951.
And the evidence for that is the number of love letters he receives from satisfied card senders every year.
"I get valentines from every which way," says Wright, who has been postmarking envelopes for some of the same customers for 30 years. "I try and do a neat job on every one."
Postmark collectors have been sending mail through Valentines since Wright began working at the post office 34 years ago, two months after graduating from high school. But the business has really boomed, says Wright, in the last 15 years despite postal rate increases. Whether that increase is due to publicity or a rise in the country's romanticism, Wright can't say.
Wright claims no expertise on the subject of valentine cards, only on the envelopes they are mailed in. Ask him about the origins of the holiday, which is said to have evolved from a pagan fertility festival in ancient Rome, and Wright will adjust his string tie and change the conversation to subjects he is expert in -- the origins of his town and the future of the rural general store.
"Country stores are a declining business. We're operating now for nothing but convenience and credit," says Wright, whose general store would make an ideal setting for a Norman Rockwell painting. Buckets, brooms and rubber boots are displayed in one corner. Penny candy, plastic worms and a dozen brands of chewing tobacco are advertised under pinups of hunting dogs, wanted criminals and a warning to tabacco lovers -- "Smokers and chewers will please spit on each other and not on the stove."
The center piece of the 40-year-old store is a wood stove surrounded by well worn cane-seated chairs. In the late afternoon, farmers and resident graybeards gathered there to discuss the terribly dry weather, local politics and changing times in Valentines.
"My great-grandparents were here back when we used to have plantations," says Vincent Inge, a 59-year-old farmer who grows tobacco, peanuts and cotton on a farm that once belonged to the founder, namesake and first postmaster of the town, William H. Valentine.
After the Civil War, Valentine moved to Virginia from North Carolina and opened a general store beside an old Indian trail. After that store burned in 1936, it was replaced by the present one.
Wright has traced the history of the town in an 80-page document he authored in 1976 for the Bicentennial. Appropriately, the white pages of the book are bound in valentine red covers.
In the book's introduction, Wright quotes a former resident who best captured the affection of the 150 families who currently reside in Valentines: c"I had rather be in Valentines dead than in my former community alive."