A magic carpet ride to Farmville, Va.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Barreling along Virginia's back-country roads almost an hour west of Richmond, I'm beginning to doubt we'll ever reach Farmville.

It's been nearly three hours since we crossed the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in Washington and plowed down I-95, though the last 30 miles have been lovely. A gothic-looking railroad bridge rivaling a Roman aqueduct crosses the James River, then it's rolling green countryside and woods. But I'm ready to shop.

A friend who is about to open an interior design business has heard about Green Front Furniture, an import business in rural Farmville that offers a huge selection of higher-end furniture, accessories and especially Oriental rugs at up to 50 percent off regular retail prices, and she is eager to check it out. I want to cover a roomful of bare floor without spending the equivalent of the national debt.

Usually, shopping appeals to me about as much as a root canal. But Green Front is said to be a different kind of shopping experience. And when we finally emerge from the woods, practically on top of the place, I can see the difference:

Green Front, housed in 12 cavernous early-19th-century warehouses, has a total of 650,000 square feet of space. That's the equivalent of 18 football fields.

How is it that such a grand emporium ended up in out-of-the-way Farmville?

"You have to have the biggest show on earth to attract people," explains Green Front owner Richard Cralle Jr.

In Richmond, Washington or other large cities, the biggest showrooms would cost a bundle. But in Farmville, which had a collection of abandoned warehouses owned by the town, it was an affordable place to establish a business, Cralle explains.

Starting in the mid-1960s, Cralle restored the buildings without losing their history or charm -- and without adding air conditioning or much heat, either.

Because of the low overhead and because he eliminates the middleman by buying directly from overseas manufacturers, Cralle offers customers plenty of bargains.

History all around

Founded along what's now a trickle of the Appomattox River in central Virginia, Farmville is the last town through which Gen. Robert E. Lee led his bedraggled Confederate troops before surrendering at Appo-mattox in 1865. The town, now part of Virginia's Civil War Trails and surrounded by farmland, woods, reservoirs and lakes, is an attractive enclave of 7,500 people where everybody seems to know everybody else's name.

"Hey, Slick!" Farmville native Gary Adkins calls out to a policeman downtown while chatting with a visitor.

Though Adkins, whose father started Adkins Real Estate in 1946, is delighted to list the town's practical attributes (including affordable real estate), he is even more proud of its sense of style and tradition.

The courtroom scene in Sommersby, the 1993 Civil War film starring Jodie Foster and Richard Gere, was shot here, he says, because the town has managed to save so much from its past, including its early-1900s street lamps.

True to its name, farming is still an important part of the town's character, and a farmers' market runs every Saturday from spring through fall at the train station.

The area is also enhanced by two colleges -- Hampden-Sydney College and Longwood University.

Longwood, founded in 1839, sponsors the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts, where a recent exhibition featured a marvelously freewheeling collection of art quilts, multimedia paintings and sculpture, many by African-American artists.

The exuberant African-Amer-ican influence may result in part from the fact that the push for equal rights in education in 1951 began in nearby Robert R. Moton High School. The school is now the Robert Russa Moton Museum, which focuses on the struggle for civil rights in education.

Hampden-Sydney College, founded in 1776, several miles away and one of the few remaining all-male colleges in the nation, retains its pastoral federal-era look.

Farmville also offers the pleasures of the outdoors. Hiking, fishing, kayaking and camping all play big here. The Virginia Campground Directory lists eight well-equipped relatively nearby sites encompassing not only many of the Civil War battle towns like Appomattox and Spotsylvania, but Charlottesville and the NASCAR track in Richmond.

Carpets everywhere

While Farmville is appealing in its own right, my friend and I had come to shop. We bypassed Rugrats, a funky little place on Main Street that custom-designs carpeting (worth a visit but not what we were looking for), and began in Green Front's Building 7, the rug clearance "barn."

The building is a 200-year-old brick warehouse filled with beautiful Oriental rugs -- stacked in knee-high piles on the floor, hanging from the ceiling and folded, tied and propped like drunken soldiers along racks and walls.

Several brawny guys pull out and unroll whatever rug strikes a customer's fancy. Often, they'll cart one after another outside to spread them on the tarmac like offerings in a Moroccan bazaar.

I found a couple of dozen rugs that I really liked at bargain prices (between $150 for a 5-by-8-foot rug to $900 for a 10-by-13-foot). The rugs are imported directly from factories and small shops in India, Pakistan, Afghan-istan, Tibet, Nepal and Persia.

The prices were good, but nothing really suited my needs. So we walked back down Main Street to buildings 1-4 -- actually a catacomb of interconnected rooms and halls stuffed with thousands upon thousands of rugs ranging in size from prayer and runner to those that could fill an embassy's reception hall.

Finally, lost, I came into a kind of four-square mezzanine surrounded on all sides by stacked and hanging rugs. In the center pit below, hanging full-length from one of dozens of display rods, I saw my rug.

It had a toffee background, with a clear-cut border of burnished red, topaz and slate with flecks of cherry, rust, gold, fern, navy and turquoise. I slapped down my credit card, they folded the rug and stuffed it into the back of my van.

My friend and I had a late lunch at the Cheese Company, which has good soups and sandwiches, gourmet cookies and coffee, and headed home.

Later that night, we spread the new rug out on my floor. I loved it; unfortunately, my husband didn't. So he and I made a return trip to Farmville.

I was unhappy at the notion of replacing the rug, but it was worth the drive just to see the amazed look on my husband's face as he wandered around Green Front.

After an exhausting morning, we ate a good lunch -- Greek shrimp linguine, hot crab dip, salad and iced tea -- in Charley's Waterfront Cafe, which occupies the old brick tobacco auction barn overlooking a narrow gorge of the Appomattox stream.

Decorated with old floor scales for weighing tobacco, thick wooden beams and broad-board floors dotted with Oriental rugs, it's a nice addition to the Green Front experience.

Although Green Front has a 30-day return policy, which means we could have returned my rug for store credit, I conveniently forgot to put it in the van on the return trip. My current plan is to put it somewhere else in our house, and hope my husband learns to love it.

On our return trip, I found a gorgeous rug that my husband liked too. Sadly, it was too big for our space. Then he found a rug that he loved and I hated. Finally, we compromised on a 10-by-15-foot all-wool vegetable-dyed rug for $1,700.

I'm getting used to the rug, but am not inspired to make coordinating slipcovers. Instead, I'm saving in hopes of making at least one more trip to Farmville to find the perfect rug that will make us both happy. It's bound to be there. It's only a matter of searching.

When you go

Getting there: From Baltimore, take I-295 to I-95 and head south to Richmond. Then take Route 360 west for about 38 miles. Past Amelia, turn right on Route 307, then take Route 460 west to Farm-ville. It's about a four-hour drive.

Green Front Furniture, 316 N. Main St. Farmville, VA 23901

434-392-5943

www.greenfront.com

* Oriental rugs, furniture and accessories. Open Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m.-

6 p.m.; closed Sunday. Green Front also has smaller retail outlets in Sterling, Va., and Raleigh, N.C.

Lodging:

Longwood Inn B&B;, 408 High St., Farmville, VA 23901

866-660-8149

www.longwoodinn.com

* Victorian (1879) B&B; with four guest rooms, cottage and apartment; rates from $95 to $125.

Ampthill Plantation B&B;, 501 Ampthill Road, Cartersville, VA 23027

804-375-3539

* A lovely colonial manor with gardens, cows and friendly innkeepers, and an addition said to be the last building Thomas Jefferson designed.

Spring Grove Farm B&B;, Route 4, Box 259, Appomattox, VA 24522

877-409-1865

www.springgrovefarm.com

* Impressive 1842 plantation; rates from $90 to $250

Activities:

Robert Russa Moton Museum, P.O. Box 908, Farmville, VA 23901

434-315-8775

www.moton.org

* "A repository for historically significant materials which cover the ongoing struggle for civil rights in education," according to the museum's Web site. Open 1 p.m.-3 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, noon-3 p.m. Saturday; also by appointment. Free admission.

Longwood Center for the Visual Arts, Longwood College, 129 N. Main St., Farmville, VA 23901

434-395-2206

www.longwood.edu / lcva

* Exhibition gallery focuses on diversity among artists and their works. Galleries open Monday through Saturday noon-4:30 p.m. Free admission.

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