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Customers peruse flowers at St. Clair Fruit Market in Toronto, Ont.. Wednesday, February 13, 2013.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

It's a gift waiting to happen in everyday life: You can hop off a packed streetcar, dodge speeding vehicles, tiptoe over mounds of snow while meditating on February's harshness, and suddenly realize that the true spirit of Valentine's Day is there for the taking.

A startling array of many-hued roses, sharing a wintry sidewalk display with more practical rock salt, firewood and carrots, brings sudden joy to the streetscape and lifts pedestrian feelings of affection into love's impulse buy.

Rational people show their love strategically and order expensive Valentine's roses from the florist well in advance: The rituals of a relationship can be efficiently calculated down to length of stem, tint of petals and costly multiples of a dozen.

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But for those who believe expressions of love should be impulsive and not habitual, driven more by feelings than by a date on the calendar, the offerings of a humble store like the St. Clair Fruit Market can perform miracles.

"Sometimes we take our joy for granted," said George Gidi as he emerged from the west-end Toronto shop with a purplish bouquet for his wife. "But when I suddenly saw these flowers, I realized that this was a way to tell her how much I love her."

February flowers have that undeniable power, because of their vivid colours, attention-getting scent, hot-climate evocations and short-lived fragility. The fact that they're an unnecessary luxury undoubtedly enhances their appeal.

"Red roses are better than diamonds," insisted Jona Belmonte, as she bought a dozen on behalf of a busy male friend. "They're the best gift for a woman – it's really amazing the way they can express our feelings."

The street-level flower show is remarkably accessible, a democratic version of the luxe life – prices for roses imported from Colombia start at $12 for a dozen and climb a few bucks higher. The flowers that exude big-spending when they're unwrapped at home are sold from a much less glamorous storefront, sharing space with boxes of eggplant, canned pinto beans, glutinous black rice and overripe persimmons.

Dai Chen and his wife, Kitty, immigrants from southern China, have been running the shop for a little over a decade and added the flowers to attract more walk-by business – the previous owners sold fish from the nook that is now a heavy-scented cold room for controlled-climate storage.

Mr. Dai knows that the clientele at a store like his are economical in their shopping, so he spends a large part of his workdays at the food terminal and the flower wholesalers haggling for bargains. On the day before Valentine's, as dealers became eager to clear a glut of high-end roses they'd have no use for by Feb. 15, he snapped up dozens at the low price of $1.20 a rose.

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To make his investment worthwhile, he has to count on good weather to increase street traffic and romantic moods – the TV in the unheated shop is permanently turned to an all-news channel with non-stop weather updates. But just to be on the safe side, he also had to stay up until midnight on Valentine's Eve, trimming browned leaves and blackened petals before immersing his treasures in a "vitamin bath" to extend their shelf-life.

The rose loses some of its romance in these circumstances. "It's gambling," he said. "When I win, I make a little bit. But every year is different, and you can't ever predict what you're going to sell. When the economy is bad, the flower market is slow – people have to eat bananas, but they don't have to buy roses."

Mr. Dai and his wife take home slightly damaged roses, so at least their Valentine's Day will have its floral side. But the rest of their working life together doesn't leave much room for the festive spirit. They work seven days a week and up to 16 hours a day. They don't take vacations, though they do make a point of giving their daughter, who attends a nearby middle school, private piano lessons.

"I hope she becomes a pianist," Ms. Dai said.

She herself wishes she could be a nurse but is reconciled to the life of fruit-selling and flower-trimming – on her feet all day, wearing three layers of clothing to ward off the cold, sorting good produce from bad non-stop, keeping up a cheerful patter with steady customers despite her shyness in a second language.

"This is hard work," she said, very much the realist. "No Canadian would do this job. It's a job for immigrants, people with no experience and no language."

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Her husband is more upbeat. "I enjoy my job – buying and selling makes me feel good, and I get to talk to customers every day. It's when I stay home and I'm not talking that I feel bad."

It's an imperfect Valentine's story, but at some basic level of urban life, it still works – not least when the end point of all that hard labour and risk-taking is more happiness in a harried world.

"It just makes me feel better," said Hilda Ponce, cradling her tulips but leaving behind the roses – hoping that someone else would buy them for her.

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